We need more women in the field, says pioneering engineer

25 Oct 2016

Prof Dame Ann Dowling. Image: Trinity College Dublin

Prof Dame Ann Dowling wants to change how we think about engineering and to encourage greater diversity in the profession. Claire O’Connell reports.

Engineering has a diversity problem, so what can we do about it? We need to get the message out about the creativity and breadth of engineering work, according to Prof Dame Ann Dowling. As president of the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, Dowling will be tackling that question at a talk tomorrow (26 October) in Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

In the UK, just 8pc of professional engineers are women and Ireland is not doing much better, with a ratio of 9 males to every one female. “There is under-representation pro rata in terms of ethnic minorities and even some socio-economic groups [in engineering],” said Dowling. “And the really striking and huge gap is in terms of women.”

Women are missing out 

This presents a number of problems, not least that half of the population is under-represented in the field that develops our everyday products and services. “Engineers develop solutions all the time and are developing new products, new services that we all use,” said Dowling. “To have a sector of the population not represented in what, say, our new cars are like means that we are not getting the best business decisions.”

On an individual level, women are also missing out on some “fantastically creative and interesting jobs”, she added. With an expected demand for greater numbers of engineers overall, it makes sense to encourage more women into the profession. 

Breadth and creativity 

One issue that Dowling would like to address to encourage diversity is about how people generally think about engineering. “The public perception of engineering is still very traditional, it’s often about hard hats and construction sites and heavy machinery,” she said.

“But engineering underpins all of our modern communications, our healthcare, the entertainment sector – it is huge, it is everywhere, and we don’t do enough to portray that.”

Another factor is creativity – a desirable trait in engineers who need to solve problems, yet it is often seen as a contrast to science and engineering, rather than something complementary.

“We are looking for people who are really creative and have an underpinning of science,” said Dowling. “If they are creative, they can design and turn ideas into reality with engineering.”

It is also vital to get these messages about breadth and creativity out to students and their families before the students make their pre-university subject choices in school, so that more take options that can lead to engineering studies, she noted.

Flying high 

Dowling herself got into engineering through maths, which she studied at the University of Cambridge. “I always knew I wanted to use the maths, and I had a vacation job at the Royal Aircraft Establishment,” she recalled. “From that, I could see how I could use my maths to reduce aircraft noise.”

At the time when the noisiness of Concorde was an issue for airport landings, Dowling undertook a PhD in Cambridge looking at noise reduction of high-speed planes. She has since also applied her engineering and maths skills to a variety of problems in underwater acoustics, road vehicle noise and combustion.

In 1993, she became the first female professor in engineering at the University of Cambridge, where today she is a professor of mechanical engineering and a deputy vice-chancellor. She has won many awards, including recognition in The Queen’s Birthday Honours – a CBE for services to mechanical engineering, and a DBE for services to science. 

In 2014, ‘Dame Ann’ became the first female president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, where she is overseeing new initiatives that look to boost diversity.

Creating diversity in engineering

One of those initiatives is the Diversity Leadership Group. This is made up of around 40 engineering employers, and has developed a diversity and inclusion toolkit.

The academy is also working on a new communications campaign called the Engineering Talent Project to target students, families and employers and bring public perceptions of engineering into the 21st century.

“It’s about why people should consider engineering as a career for them,” said Dowling, who is looking forward to discussing the progress with the Centre for Women in Science and Engineering Research (WiSER) group in TCD tomorrow.

“It is good to share experiences and knowledge from the different initiatives that people are taking,” she added.

The WiSER, in conjunction with Engineers Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy, will host Prof Dame Ann Dowling’s talk “Diversity and inclusion: a value proposition for engineering” tomorrow (26 October) at the Edmund Burke Theatre in TCD from 6-9pm. The event is free but tickets must be booked here.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication