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Viewpoint: Women in engineering

The roll call of famous female engineers is sadly one that doesn’t make for household reading, despite the significance of the advances that have come from women pioneers in the history of our sector.

Patriarchal profession

While most of us could talk about the achievements of Brunel, Edison and Tesla, how many of us appreciate the fact that Emily Roebling took on the supervision of the Brooklyn Bridge construction when her husband died (despite no formal experience), or that Stephanie Kwolek invented Kevlar, or that Ellen Swallow Richards was the pioneer of environmental engineering?

The fact that these inventors and engineers are almost unknown reflects the patriarchal nature of our profession. When the UKRC, which works on the under-representation of women in the science, engineering and technology sectors, asked people to name a famous engineer, only one woman − the computer pioneer Ada Lovelace − made it into the top ten.

At GE, we surveyed nearly 1,000 students and lecturers for our Young Minds Monitor project, and around two thirds agreed that the UK struggles to attract enough women into engineering technology.

This is a significant problem for attracting a new generation of Ada Lovelaces. Worryingly, lecturers today see it as more of a problem to attract the right talent into the engineering technology sector than it was when they started their career, by a margin of more than three to one.

Progress in engineering is in danger of stagnating if we fail to attract the best and brightest from society. Without significant changes, engineering will begin to resemble an episode of Mad Men, rather than the modern, dynamic sector it has the potential to be.

“Without significant changes, engineering will begin to resemble an episode of Mad Men, rather than the modern, dynamic sector it has the potential to be”

GE is trying to do its part to redress the balance. We established a Women’s Network in 1997 to help the 100,000 women who work at GE to advance their careers and help our business grow. The aim is to share experiences, best practice and highlight women role models. Today the Women’s Network has evolved into an organisation with over 150 Hubs in 43 countries helping thousands of women around the world by organising professional development events, mentoring and networking activities.

I was delighted that this kind of commitment was recognised by the readers of Women Engineering magazine, who voted us the third best place to work in their list of top 50 companies which are progressive in hiring women engineers.

We also reach out to the communities in which we operate, partnering with local groups to contribute physical and financial resources for those in need. And we are investing in the next generation − having established a scholarship programme aimed at supporting qualified women in further education. Our goal is to support young women interested in technical or business careers while building a future pipeline of candidates for GE’s entry-level leadership programmes.

Interestingly, our survey of academics found that it was not greater government or business investment that was most important. Rather, developing a positive societal attitude regarding the benefits and value of engineering technology is seen as the most important ingredient in order to develop a best in class engineering culture in the UK. Engineering will only foster that culture if it is no longer seen as the preserve of men.

  • Mark Elborne is president and CEO of GE UK

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