WES Centenary: One Hundred Years of Supporting Women Engineers
by Yasmin Ali, Chemical Engineer
Imagine being a woman during the First World War in the UK. The men have been drafted into the army, and suddenly jobs in technical and engineering roles back at home need to be filled. This is exactly what happened; women gained access to jobs previously unavailable to them, and successfully occupied them. But it only lasted for a few years; as soon as the war ended, they were told to step aside and give up their new jobs to the returning men.
This is why the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) was born one hundred years ago, on the 23 June 1919. It is the world’s oldest women’s engineering organisation, and continues to support and inspire women in engineering and technical professions today.
Despite living in a far more gender-equal society than we did a hundred years ago, engineering remains a male-dominated sector, with women making up only 12 per cent of the workforce. There is one big reason why this is a problem: engineers design and build the world we live in, from the buildings we inhabit to the software systems that run our lives. Dominated by men, we risk living in a world inadvertently designed for men. Up until recently, most car crash test dummies were based on a male body – just one example of the unintended consequences of a workforce made up of one group of people.
On a more positive note, I personally feel empowered by my engineering education and professional roles, and want to pass on that empowerment to other women. My work has been meaningful, varied, and well-paid. We should all encourage our daughters, relatives, and friends to consider engineering careers. Not only does this open up exciting careers, but it also allows women to contribute to solutions for the world’s problems, be that engineering medical devices, or reducing the human impact on the climate.
This year, WES will mark its Centenary by remembering the past, celebrating the present, and transforming the future. Alongside other activities, the past will be remembered through a series of ‘Wikithons’ to increase the number of Wikipedia entries about female engineers; at the moment these are negligible.
One of the routes into engineering is through apprenticeships that combine study with practical training, but most women do not take these up. To highlight female apprentices, and celebrate the present, this year’s Top 50 Women in Engineering will reward current and former engineering apprentices. Winners will be announced in The Guardian on the 21 June, to support the annual International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) celebrations taking place on 23 June.
The WES vision is to have “a nation in which women are as likely as men to choose to study and work in engineering.” To transform the future of engineering, and achieve this vision, WES will continue to support women in technical careers and inspire the next generation of female engineers. As a member, I value the network of female engineers I have met through WES, and the opportunity to show young women that engineers can make a positive impact on society.
This issue cannot, and should not, be solved by women alone. To achieve a diverse workforce, WES is continuously reaching out and encouraging men to be active in the conversation. Also, this conversation is not just for engineers. A gender-balanced and diverse engineering workforce benefits all of society, ensuring a world designed to fit its inhabitants.
Any views expressed do not represent those of the organisations I am associated with.
Yasmin Ali is a chemical engineer, working in the energy sector. She is passionate about communicating the importance of science and engineering to the public, to encourage others to follow in her footsteps.
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