Will it take another world war to get more women into engineering?

Competent engineers are essential to the economy, the environment and the health of the nation - so why isn't more being done to encourage competent women into the industry?

By the time a child blows out the candles on their fourth birthday cake, they have already decided which jobs are for men and which are for women. Boys are fire fighters or builders, girls are nurses or teachers.

Tragically, children’s books and TV programmes, as well as many parents and school teachers, inadvertently reinforce these socially constructed identities due to their own lack of understanding and preconceptions.

Alarmingly a miniscule six per cent of practicing engineers in the UK are women, according to the Women's Engineering Society.

This is the lowest number in Europe. In comparison Sweden, a country more famed for its flat pack furniture than its rich engineering heritage, has four times more female engineers than us.

But when did Britain decide that women should not aspire to be engineers and help to change the world? And worst still who thought up the ludicrous notion that women would not make good engineers? The women of Great Britain have already proven that they can be outstanding engineers and run this country single handedly. Just 70 years ago, when the men left to fight in the Second World War, women went into factories and did, more than competently, the work of talented engineers.

Sadly, at the end of the war when the men returned, everyone went back to their so called "traditional roles" and many women who could have changed the world through the discipline forgot their true calling. Will it take another war to get women back into engineering? I hope not.

Disastrously, the field of engineering loses so many talented women to so-called "caring professions" because they want "to make a difference." Ironically, making a difference is the bread and butter of engineering and in today's world is vitally important for the future.

The Women's Engineering Society states that in 2011 an overwhelming 85 per cent of engineering and technology graduates were men. While in the same year 83 per cent of medical degrees were awarded to women. This year’s A level statistics also show that only 21 per cent of girls took A level physics, however, those that did outperformed their male classmates, achieving more top A grades.

The world needs more competent engineers – that is, more female engineers.

As we continue to live through difficult financial times, there are many other pressing problems that threaten our quality of life, such as global warming, the depletion of natural resources and health - to mention just a few. Engineers and scientists are the only people who can stop the halt the destruction of our planet, so what better way to show you care and make a difference than to save the world?

Many have written about the importance of raising and changing the profile of engineering. The Institute of Engineering said that we need at least 10,000 new engineers every year between 2012 and 2020 just to keep us afloat. Recently, Sir Richard Olver, chairman of BAE Systems and a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, also reflected on how the lack of engineers will result in Britain being ill prepared for the future. This is without doubt true. While the UK is struggling to recover from the recent recession, the number of professionals is falling.

Industry, academia and the government have made constant efforts to challenge preconceptions about what people continue to believe to be a male and "dirty" discipline. However, we should be desperate to educate parents and teachers about the value and impact of this profession, as well as, drastically change all information and knowledge that young children get from the moment they are born.

It is our duty, whether as a parent, teacher, guardian, or role model to inspire a future generation of Amy Johnsons and Caroline Hasletts to help make a difference and change our world.

Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, Faculty Director of Women in Engineering at the University of Sheffield

An engineer analyzes radioactive nuclear fuels in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, southeastern France. Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images.
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How virtual reality pigs could change the justice system forever

Lawyers in Canda are aiming to defend their client by asking the judge to don a virtual reality headset and experience the life of a pig.

“These are not humans, you dumb frickin' broad.”

Those were the words truck driver Jeffrey Veldjesgraaf said to animal rights activist Anita Krajnc on 22 June 2015 as she gave water to some of the 190 pigs in his slaughterhouse-bound truck. This week, 49-year-old Kranjc appeared at the Ontario Court of Justice charged with mischief for the deed, which she argues was an act of compassion for the overheated animals. To prove this, her lawyers hope to show a virtual reality video of a slaughterhouse to the judge, David Harris. Pigs might not be humans, but humans are about to become pigs.

“The tack that we’ve taken recognises that Anita hasn’t done anything wrong,” said one of her lawyers, James Silver. Along with testimony from environmental and animal welfare experts, her defence hope the virtual reality experience, which is planned for when the trial resumes in October, will allow Harris to understand Kranjc’s point of view. Via the pigs’ point of view.

It’s safe to say that the simulated experience of being a pig in a slaughterhouse will not be a pleasant one. iAnimal, an immersive VR video about the lives of farm animals, launched earlier this year and has already changed attitudes towards meat. But whether or not Harris becomes a vegetarian after the trial is not the most pressing aspect of this case. If the lawyers get their wish to bring a VR headset into the courtroom, they will make legal history.

“Virtual reality is a logical progression from the existing ways in which technology is used to illustrate and present evidence in court,” says Graham Smith, a technology lawyer and partner at the international law firm Bird & Bird.

“Graphics, charts, visualisations, simulations and reconstructions, data-augmented video and other technology tools are already used to assist courts in understanding complex data and sequences of events.”

Researchers have already been looking into the ways VR can be used in courts, with particular focus on recreating crime scenes. In May, Staffordshire University launched a project that aims to “transport” jurors into virtual crime scenes, whilst in 2014 researchers at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Switzerland created a 3D reconstruction of a shooting, including the trajectory of a bullet. Although this will help bring to life complex evidence that might be hard to understand or picture in context, the use of VR in this way is not without its flaws.

“Whether a particular aid should be admitted into evidence can give rise to argument, especially in criminal trials involving a jury,” says Smith. “Does the reconstruction incorporate factual assumptions or inferences that are in dispute, perhaps based on expert evidence? Does the reconstruction fairly represent the underlying materials? Is the data at all coloured by the particular way in which it is presented? 

“Would immersion aid a jury's understanding of the events or could it have a prejudicial impact? At its core, would VR in a particular case add to or detract from the court's ability objectively to assess the evidence?”

The potential for bias is worrying, especially if the VR video was constructed from witness testimony, not CCTV footage or other quantitative data. To avoid bias, feasibly both the defence and prosecution could recreate an event from different perspectives. If the jury or judge experience the life of a distressed pig on its way to be slaughtered, should they also be immersed in the life of a sweaty trucker, just trying to do his job and panicked by a protester feeding his pigs an unknown substance from a bottle?

“These are not new debates,” says Smith. “Lawyers are used to tackling these kinds of issues with the current generation of illustrative aids. Before too long they will find themselves doing so with immersive VR.”

It seems safe to trust, then, that legal professionals will readily come up with failsafe guidelines for the use of VR in order to avoid prejudice or bias. But beyond legal concerns, there is another issue: ethics.

In 2009, researchers at the University of Leicester discovered that jurors face trauma due to their exposure to harrowing evidence. “The research confirms that jury service, particularly for crimes against people, can cause significant anxiety, and for a vulnerable minority it can lead to severe clinical levels of stress or the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder,” they wrote.

It’s easy to see how this trauma could be exacerbated by being virtually transported to a scene and watching a crime play out before your eyes. Gamers have already spoken about panic attacks as a result of VR horror games, with Denny Unger, creative director of Cloudhead Games, speculating they could cause heart attacks. A virtual reality murder, however virtual, is still real, and could easily cause similar distress.

Then there is the matter of which crimes get the VR treatment. Would courts allow the jury to be immersed in a VR rape? Despite how harrowing and farfetched that sounds, a virtual reality sexual assault was already screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

For now, legal professionals have time to consider these issues. By October, Kranjc’s lawyers may or may not have been allowed to use VR in court. If they are, they may change legal history. If they’re not, Kranjc may be found guilty, and faces six months in jail or a $5,000 fine. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.