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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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”