“We have two very big problems. The first is a misunderstanding of what engineering is about, and the role it plays in improving the quality of all our lives. And the second is the perception that engineering is overwhelmingly a male preserve."As a mechanical engineer from Mexico, Elena Rodriguez-Falcon arrived in Britain 16 years ago only to find that most people outside the University of Sheffield thought that she must work as a mechanic servicing motorcars or repairing washing machines.
“In Mexico, engineers are held in high esteem like doctors and lawyers, but not in modern Britain,” says Professor Rodriguez-Falcon, who last year was made Faculty Director of Women in Engineering.
Her task is nothing less than to try and change the culture that has led to this situation and a culture where just 7 per cent of practicing engineers in Britain are now women.
Britain, she says, faces an impending crisis as the supply of highly skilled, advanced engineers begins to diminish. “We have two very big problems. The first is a misunderstanding of what engineering is about, and the role it plays in improving the quality of all our lives. And the second is the perception that engineering is overwhelmingly a male preserve. We have to change both those perceptions,” she says.
Already the University has taken a long hard look at its own culture and processes. All seven engineering departments are working towards Athena Swan bronze and silver awards which set the benchmark standards for universities who want to advance the careers of women in science and engineering.
But Professor Rodriguez-Falcon emphasizes “this is not about the badge” The University is “taking a close look at how we treat female colleagues and female students to see if there are ways we can eradicate any hidden prejudice.”
She insists this is not about positive discrimination, but about getting fairness for all. Subtle processes and cultures can often work against women. “We have found that in practical classes, where there might be just one woman, it is the male students who conduct the practical while the woman takes the notes. We now have ways of ensuring this doesn’t happen,” she says.
The new Faculty Director is under no illusions about the challenges she and her colleagues face. “This is a really big problem and it can only be solved if everyone does something about it – parents, school teachers, employers, journalists, politicians, they all have a part to play in changing the culture.”
Like most engineers, she relishes a challenge and remains optimistic. She cites how a group of students are working with the charity Assist UK in helping solve access for disabled people who have been banned from using trams in the UK because of their power driven wheelchairs. “Engineers are problem solvers and they will find a solution for this, and when they do we can show the world how engineering is about caring, it is about changing people’s lives for the better, and it is about making a difference.”
This article was written by John Yates firstname.lastname@example.org.
The original version appeared in Issue 3 of Discover magazine.