Through the Representation of the People Act of 1918, more than nine million women achieved the vote but, within a year, many of these women had lost their jobs. As large numbers of men returned from the First World War, the jobs in engineering, manufacturing and other disciplines that had been occupied by women in wartime were handed back to men.
Under the 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act, skilled engineers faced returning to domestic service. Representing them was Rachel Parsons, the first president of the Women’s Engineering Society, who joined with her fellow engineers that year to secure “fair play for women in the industrial world”. It is for this reason that the modern WES maintains the suffragette colours of green, white, and violet – in recognition that even as we prepare to celebrate our centenary, there is still work to be done to help the whole engineering sector enjoy the benefits of diversity.
Much has changed, of course, in 99 years. The theme for this year’s Top 50 Women in Engineering (the WE50) is “Returners and Transferrers”, to reflect the new world of work and the way in which it affects women, especially in engineering. Transferrers are endemic in the modern workforce; very few people choose a single career, much less a single employer or discipline, for their working life, and the attitudes of younger workers around the world suggest that this trend will only become more pronounced. This brings many benefits. People who change careers can be more open-minded, creative, enthusiastic and ambitious than those in single-track careers.
They also bring new perspectives, and skills from their previous careers that can deployed in new ways. But without the right support, the benefits of multi-staged careers will be felt only by those with a natural predisposition to taking risks and an ability to talk up their transferable skills; those people are very often men. Women who qualified as engineers need to follow the women in other areas, such as the law or finance, in letting employers know the value of the skills they bring with them.
Returning to work, too, is an aspect of working life that is more likely to be experienced by women, often as a result of having taken maternity leave; mothers provide nearly three quarters of all parental childcare. Women also provide the majority of unpaid adult care. But for many families, having one partner taking on the role of sole breadwinner is far from ideal. As a sector that thrives on the skills and ingenuity of its employees, it is vital that engineering gives talented people the stability to work flexibly, to take time off and to return to work with renewed enthusiasm.
And again, it is important that women who have qualified as engineers and have worked as engineers continue to see themselves as engineers, even when they’re not working. This creates opportunities, because it encourages women to form the connections – which can be made anywhere from the school gate to the awards dinner or networking through WES events – that remain important in returning to work. It encourages women, too, to recognise their talents, and to realise how valuable they are when they return to the world of work.
In both Transferrers and Returners there is an opportunity not just for women but for the whole workforce and for all employers, but people will only make the most of these benefits if there is scaffolding to support their choices.
As consumers demand more personalised products and the manufacturing technologies of the “fourth industrial revolution” reshape the way things are made and sold, the companies that employ more diverse teams will inevitably prosper. The days of producing one product, decided upon by one person and sold identically, are over. The future belongs to companies that can use the data they have on their business, their production, their customers and the markets in which they operate to create products that are as diverse as the people that buy them. This will only be achieved by diverse teams of people. Some will continue to specialise, and in some disciplines that will be valuable, but engineers almost never work alone.
The roots of this opportunity for change are in our education system, where a less straight-line, exam-oriented approach has much to offer. The engineers of yesterday showed a proficiency for maths or physics, and were steered along a narrow path towards those subjects. Consequently, a great many pupils decided at an early age that to follow this path would mean ending up in a specific technical discipline, and only the small number that were confident in what they wanted to do in their careers were able to commit to learning more.
This approach is wholly unsuited to the new way of the world. The technologies that will shape our future, from robotics and AI to advanced manufacturing to electric vehicles, are all multifaceted disciplines, incorporating everything from design skills to mathematical theory to physical structures, and the next generation of engineers will need to understand not only how to build and maintain these systems but how to apply them in the real world, how they will be used by people and how they can be improved.
There’s a lot of evidence to show that children learn best when they are told stories. When they are told not just the date of the Battle of Hastings, but the language that was spoken, the politics of the time, what people’s health and life expectancy was like in the 11th century, and the physics of an arrow in flight, they gain an understanding of one event that is greater, and more memorable, than the sum of its parts. In a way, this is what we’re planning to do at the WES, and what engineering as a sector needs to do – to make disciplines and industries easier to navigate and opportunities easier to grasp, so that the engineers of the future have longer, more detailed, more interesting stories. Celebrations for the WES centenary are all based on the successes of 100 companies sharing their success stories to aid us all in achieving 30 per cent of female engineers and applied scientists by 2030.
Benita Mehra is president of the Women’s Engineering Society.