International Women’s Day this year is certainly promising to be even more interesting than usual, with gender equality being present on pretty much everyone’s agenda over the last few months. Questions about how we perceive, encourage and reward achievements by women have been raised multiple times in and outside the workplace. At WRT, it turns out, we actually have a 50% split of female and male members of staff. Now, I personally count myself lucky to work in an environment where gender does not feel to make too much of a difference. Hearing other people’s experiences, however, prompted me to think of how I got to be in this position and who encouraged (or didn’t encourage) me and my female peers along the way.
Evidence, Engagement & Education
“Are you sure that’s the right choice for you?” everyone will have heard those words before, explicitly or implied. I wouldn’t be surprised though if women had heard them more often than men – especially early in life. As a young girl in school, female role models are still difficult to find in many subjects and careers, and many commonly held stereotypes exclude women. While there may be lots of superficial encouragement – government programmes to get girls into STEM, graduate schemes etc – it often feels like you come across these too late in life, at a point where you have subconsciously already decided that a certain career is or isn’t for you. There is evidence to show that boys and girls are received subtly different treatment in school, with boys often being encouraged more to perceive science and engineering than girls. Research also shows that by the age of 10, our aspirations of what we want to do with our lives are already forming, indicating that these early influences are crucial to our choices later on.
Encouraging young girls to participate in a wide range of subjects and contributing to breaking down stereotypes at a young age is exactly what we are trying to do with our new project – Westcountry Women Working With Water (5W).
One of the areas in which women are still significantly underrepresented is engineering. Only 20% of A-level physics students are female, and the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineering professionals in the EU at just less than 10%. For 5W, we are partnering with Dr Sarah Ward from the University of the West of England and a team of engineers at Exeter University and UWE to engage schools in Taunton in engineering and the contribution it makes to climate-resilient water management.
Focusing on girls aged 8-13 and female relatives, we are working together with schools to increase understanding of the urban water cycle and created Sustainable Drainage Systems and Alternative Water Supplies. We hope that a creative, hands-on approach led by female engineers can make a difference to how girls, teachers and parents think about engineering and related subjects – and the construction of schemes on school grounds will actively contribute to making them more adapted to climate change and provide the participating engineers with valuable experience. Even if it takes more than a few workshops and some engaged teachers to change a mindset, I am confident we will make a difference to how girls feel about their career choices – and that, if asked whether they are sure about their choice, they can confidently say “I am.”.
5W is funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering under their Ingenious Grant and runs from May 2018 to June 2019.