By the time a child blows out the candles on their fourth birthday cake, they have already decided which jobs are for men and which are for women. Boys are fire- fighters or builders, girls are nurses or teachers.
Tragically, children’s books and TV programmes, as well as many parents and school teachers, inadvertently reinforce these socially constructed identities owing to their own lack of understanding and preconceptions.
Alarmingly a miniscule six per cent of practising engineers in the UK are women, according to the Women’s Engineering Society. This is the lowest number in Europe. Sweden, a country more famed for its flat pack furniture than its rich engineering heritage, has four times more female engineers than us.
But when did this great country of ours decided that women should not aspire to be engineers and help to change the world? And worse still, who thought up the ludicrous notion that women would not make good engineers?
The women of Great Britain have already proven that they can be outstanding engineers and run this country single handedly. Just 70 years ago when the men left to fight in the Second World War women went into factories and did, more than competently, the work of talented engineers.
Sadly, at the end of the war when the men returned, everyone went back to their so called “traditional roles” and many women who could have changed the world through the discipline forgot their true calling.
Will it take another war to get women back into engineering? I hope not.
Disastrously, the field of engineering loses so many talented women to so-called caring professions because they want “to make a difference”. Ironically, making a difference is the bread and butter of engineering and in today’s world is vitally important for the future.
The Women’s Engineering Society states that in 2011 an overwhelming 85 per cent of engineering and technology graduates were men. Conversely, 83 per cent of medical degrees were awarded to women in the same year.
This year’s A-level statistics also show that only 21 per cent of girls took A-level physics. However, those that did outperformed their male classmates achieved more top A grades.
As we continue to live through difficult financial times, there are many other pressing problems that threaten our quality of life such as global warming, the depletion of natural resources and health.
Engineers and scientists are the only people who can stop the inevitable fate of our planet, so what better way to show you care and make a difference than to save the world?
Many have written about the importance of raising and changing the profile of engineering. The Institute of Engineering said we need at least 10,000 new engineers every year between 2012 and 2020 just to keep us afloat in this financial crisis.
Recently, Sir Richard Olver, chairman of BAE Systems and a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, also reflected on how the lack of engineers will result in Britain being ill prepared for the future. This is without doubt true. While the UK is struggling to recover from the recent double recession, the number of professionals is falling.
Industry, academia and the Government have made constant efforts to challenge preconceptions about what people continue to believe to be a male and “dirty” discipline.
However, we should be desperate to educate parents and teachers about the value and impact of this profession, as well as drastically change all information and knowledge that young children get from the moment they are born.
It is our duty, whether as a parent, teacher, guardian, or role model to inspire a future generation of Amy Johnsons and Caroline Hasletts to help make a difference and change our world.
• Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon is faculty director of women in engineering at the University of Sheffield.