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Women in engineering: ‘The sky is your starting point, not your limit’

23 Jun 2021

To mark International Women in Engineering Day, women in the field are focused on encouraging the next generation.

The future is bright for Ireland’s budding engineers, but only with increased opportunities for women is the consensus from most quarters of Ireland’s engineering community.

The good news is women engineers are more likely to agree that engineering is a rewarding career choice for young people than their male counterparts.

According to a report by Engineers Ireland, 84pc of women engineers agreed that engineering is a rewarding career choice, with 71pc confident about job opportunities in Ireland.

Not everything in the report was positive, however. Women represent only 12pc of the engineering profession, despite many Irish women engineers’ best efforts to increase the appeal of a career in the field.

Prof Orla Feely, president of Engineers Ireland urged the Irish engineering community as a whole to play an active part in nurturing female talent.

Orla Feely, Engineers Ireland. Image: Orla Murray/Coalesce

“Whether early career engineers or senior leaders, all engineers should play their role as allies for their female counterparts. By working together, we can nurture our future engineering talent and also help female engineers create a clear pathway for progression, so they remain in academia and industry,” she said.

‘This is not a male-only industry’

But the problem remains that not enough women are attracted to careers in engineering to restore the gender imbalance within the industry.

Shauna Ryan, HR manager with software integration firm, SL Controls, says that although the company is making a concerted effort to hire female engineers, the number of women applying for roles such as systems engineers and validation engineers is still low.

“We are actively trying to target and attract females to our roles but the effort to get more women into engineering needs to happen earlier – in our schools and at home,” she said.

“Very little has been done to explain to young people – especially young girls – how much engineering has evolved over the last 20 years. We want to get young people excited about, and interested in, engineering.”

Software quality engineer Saoirse Kearse and systems engineer Blessing Nwachukwu, who both work at SL Controls, feel the same. Their industry’s gender imbalance has been obvious to them since their university days.

Nwachukwu studied a master’s in mechatronics at University of Limerick (UL), and she said it was positive in terms of attitude and support. “However, the gender balance in terms of class makeup was still weighted heavily towards males.”

Kearse agreed, saying there were only four girls out of 60 in her college class, but that more girls were starting to apply in the years after she started.

“The stereotype of engineering being for men is gone. This is not a male-only industry. I find a lot of encouragement and support, not because I am female, but because I want to succeed.”

To mark International Women in Engineering Day, Engineers Ireland is calling on Ireland’s female engineering talent to take centre stage as role models to inspire future generations of engineers like Kearse and Nwachukwu.

Feely also praised the work of some of Ireland’s best-known women engineers, including Dr Ann Kelleher and Ann-Marie Holmes of Intel, as well as Prof Linda Doyle, who recently became the first woman to be elected provost at Trinity College Dublin.

“These engineers are making a positive impact on our lives today, and their work will continue to create a lasting impact on society for generations to come,” said Feely.

Several of Ireland’s high-profile women engineers got involved in events across the country organised by Engineers Ireland for International Women in Engineering Day, including a panel discussion on rethinking work culture and a Q&A session with STEPS Ambassador and NASA datanaut Fionnghuala O’Reilly.

For its part, SL Controls is due to set up a programme for schoolchildren aged 11 to show them what being an engineer is all about.

Ryan said the company hopes the effort will encourage more students – both male and female – to take up STEM subjects in secondary school and consider engineering as a career.

Giving advice to young women following in her footsteps, Nwachukwu said: “Once you make up your mind, you need to stand your ground. You don’t need to act like a man. You need to have a passion for engineering. You need to have a purpose. I am thankful I am an engineer.

“You have to find out what that is for you, and you have to pursue it, not allowing anything to stop you along the way. When you do, it is very rewarding. For young females, the sky should be your starting point, not your limit,” she said.

Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea worked as a Careers reporter until 2024, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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