Engineering – the creative career choice

With  International Women in Engineering day approaching on 23rd June, we spoke to IET’s ‘Young Woman Engineer of the Year’, Jenni Sidey to get her thoughts on the lack of diversity in the industry…

“International Women in Engineering Day is a call to celebrate the achievements of women in technical fields around the world. For some, it highlights the talents, drive, abilities, and achievements of those working today. For others, it shines a light on trailblazing role models of previous generations, from Millie Dresselhaus, the Queen of Carbon Science, to Mary Jackson, whose skills helped put a man on the moon. Perhaps for all of us, it should be a sobering reminder of why initiatives such at this are still required.

If the need for such a celebration isn’t obvious, the fact that only 9% of the engineering workforce in the UK is female should make it so[1]. This is the lowest percentage of working female engineers in all of Europe – Latvia, Bulgaria, and Cyprus lead with just under 30%[2]. The outlook for women entering the profession doesn’t seem much better. Jobsite recently found that 50% of teens thought engineering was a male job. This is a marker of a worrying trend: there is too little diversity in one of the most vital careers in the United Kingdom.

(c) Institute of Engineering and Technology

This is problematic because the job of the engineer is an essential one: to improve people’s lives through the application of science. Engineering doesn’t have to be about hardhats, engines, maths, and statistics if you don’t want it to be. In reality, the essential components of an engineer are compassion and creativity. Compassion is required to want to improve people’s lives and creativity is required to discover ways to do so.

If only one group in our society takes up the call to become engineers, we risk a dangerous future with a shortage of solutions which suit everyone. Professional bodies estimate that, considering that the number of engineering graduates hasn’t increased in eight years, we must double the number of engineering students in the UK in order to address our skills shortage[3].

Beyond this basic need for the production of more ideas and a larger workforce to put them into practice, the evidence supporting the benefits of a diverse engineering workforce is undeniable. Both academic and political institutions, from the European Commission to the US National Institutes of Health, have found that an increased number of women involved in science leads to smarter, more productive, and more creative teams[4]. Without these gender diverse teams, the UK simply will not reach its full potential as a science and engineering powerhouse.

So what can we do?

Our challenge is twofold. We need more women to consider the field and we need more women to keep working as engineers. Both of these problems are difficult to solve. The first requires breaking a long-held stereotype of a field that is often associated with bookish, dry maths and physics problems. The second problem may be addressed once more women enter the field. The more women are represented in a conventionally male-dominated culture, the easier it will be for women to confidently make gains in the field.

I hope that my experience, and the experiences of women like me, can help with both of these problems. First and foremost, I’m a mechanical engineer. I’m also a teacher. I’ve chosen to improve people’s lives by studying fire and how we might use it to meet our energy needs in a sustainable way. I was never the best at maths and I never wear a hardhat. I was certainly interested in science when I was growing up, but, importantly, I was also interested in painting, drawing, and dance.

Once I realised that engineering combined science and the creativity I loved in my hobbies, I knew it was for me. Now I consider my job to be one of the most creative I’ve ever encountered. I use my engineering skills every day to solve problems in creative ways to help people. And I still don’t need a hardhat.

(c) Jenni Sidey

Perhaps most importantly, I hope that my presence and that of my female engineering colleagues will help people associate engineering with more than one gender. This brings us to our second challenge. The more women who choose engineering, the more it emphasises the fact that engineering is for everyone. The visibility of a range of gender and racially diverse role models is absolutely essential for pushing our field forward.

With this experience, I can offer two pieces of advice to women considering entering or already within the field. The first is to find allies, mentors and role models. Although it’s not easy to be one of the few women in the workplace, you can make it easier by aligning yourself with people who understand the need for diversity. I’ve had a varied group of mentors, many of which have been men, who have helped me overcome obstacles and reach levels of success beyond my own expectations.

My second piece of advice would be to always remember why you entered the field. What type of science do you love to study? How do you want to use it to help people? Remembering this will help me you focused and remind you of what you love about your profession even in the inevitable difficult times that come with being a minority in a workplace.

Although I find the need for an International Women in Engineering Day frustrating, I always find the experience of the day itself heartening. The case for gender diversity in engineering is a strong one. By spreading the truth about engineering – that it requires creativity and compassion – and highlighting the female engineers we celebrate today, we can work towards solving engineering’s big problem.”

Jenni Sidey, Ph.D, is a lecturer in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge currently working on the development of the latest low emission combustion devices for use in the transportation and energy sectors. She was voted IET’s Young Woman Engineer of the Year 2016.

For more information, download the full ‘Engineering Talent of Tomorrow’ report here.

Watch a video with the IET’s Jenni Sidey and Jeremy Watson about what life was really like for women in the industry.

[1] Skills & Demands from Industry – 2015 Survey, IET,
[2] Vince Cable says UK economy hampered by lack of female engineers, The Guardian, 4 Nov 2013,
[3] Engineering for a successful nation, RAEng and EPSRC, March 2015
[4] Nielsen, Mathias Wullum, et al. “Opinion: Gender diversity leads to better science.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114.8 (2017): 1740-1742.

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