Opinion: why do we lend weight and credibility to the notion that women need help to succeed in engineering while male students are expected to manage on their own?

I am an engineer. As a child, I loved Lego, hated dolls and was a bit of a tomboy. I studied Honours Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Applied Maths for the Leaving Certificate. I was not guided towards engineering. I found my way here myself.

I want to make a very clear statement. I am a lecturer and I am here to support all of my students in their pursuit of a professional path. Should any student, male or female, feel that they need help or guidance, I would like to think that I am someone that they can approach.

However, I do not engage with Women in Engineering societies or events. It is already clear to female engineering students that they are in the minority. I am concerned that underlining the imbalance might reinforce it. A Men in Engineering society would be banned on first utterance.

Men in Engineering society would be banned on first utterance.

Why do we lend weight and credibility to the notion that women need help to succeed in engineering while male students are expected to manage on their own? I am willing to bet that many female engineering students actually have a better appreciation of their career path than the average male student. They didn’t choose this course lightly. Furthermore, what message do we convey to both male and female students if female students are singled out for special treatment and attention?

On the issue of gender balance, I would urge caution. An interesting article last year pointed out that we need to examine our culture in order to retain women within engineering. So let us consider what would happen if instead of trying to "help" female engineering students, we try to normalise their presence and contribution?

It is not that I don’t support the idea of increasing the numbers of female students in STEM but I would rather do it in other ways. I would prefer if our schools were more proactive in offering maths and science subjects across the board. I would rather raise the profile of engineering as a career, so that students entering our lecture theatres every September are well-prepared, know what they are undertaking and are excited to hit the ground running.

What would happen if instead of trying to "help" female engineering students, we try to normalise their presence and contribution?

Instead of focusing our efforts on those who are considering a career in engineering, we need to consider what happens to our graduate engineers. Are we examining the sexism that others have encountered within the workplace to ensure that it is a welcoming environment for all? We could also look at the other issues surrounding retention of women in the workplace that are common across all industries, like how to encourage and support working mothers and fathers.

The education system needs to be encouraged to offer all subjects to all students at Leaving Certificate level. Education should be balanced for all genders. Primary schools are already working towards raising awareness of STEM. If we support this, we allow students to pursue their interests and natural curiosity.

I want to be the best qualified engineer for the job. Full stop. I want the word woman removed from my qualifications.

Before using gender balance as a concept to promote women, I would ask that, on behalf of the women who are already in this profession, we consider the likely response. If gender is a factor in appointments and promotions, it will be assumed that any woman who is promoted is promoted for that reason: she was the best qualified woman for the job. I want to be the best qualified engineer for the job. Full stop. I want the word woman removed from my qualifications. Being a woman is not a skill. It is my gender.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ