National Women in Engineering Day – a time for reflection

Set up by the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) to celebrate its 95th anniversary in 2014, National Women in Engineering Day is an inspired initiative that builds on the legacy of the heroic women of World War One.

Life for women in pre-war Britain was dominated by domesticity. Their place was in the home and, while Suffragettes were campaigning for change, most women had no choice but to content themselves with their lot. It was only when the men left to fight that women started taking their places in factories, shops and offices. Circumstances had dictated change and for the first time women had a role and, to a lesser extent, a voice.

More than one million women joined the workforce between 1914 and 1918. They did everything from driving trams and cleaning trains to delivering mail and joining police patrols. While many were earning money for the first time, female workers in munitions factories were still paid as little as half the wages of men doing similar jobs.

There was no such thing as work/life balance. Twelve hour shifts were commonplace and some women worked 13 days without a break. It was a hard life but many women saw paid employment as a stepping stone to independence and an endorsement of their place in society.

After the war, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their gender. For educated, middle-class women, this meant access to numerous professions previously denied to them.

Unfortunately, the same wasn’t true across the socio-economic board. When the troops returned, many women found themselves surplus to requirements. The 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act forced most women to leave their jobs, as men came home and factories switched their focus to peacetime endeavours. As roles reversed once more, women found themselves grieving or caring for injured male relatives or husbands, or both.

Economic hardship and low expectation combined to form an unhappy picture for women in the immediate aftermath of the war. Despite their pioneering contribution, thousands of women were dismissed from their jobs, particularly in engineering. These newly unemployed, but undeniably ambitious, women were pressured into becoming domestic servants or return to the business of running the home.

The Women’s Engineering Society was set up in 1919, at the end of the First World War, when the women who had worked in technical jobs during the war wanted to continue their newfound vocations. Since then the organisation has worked tirelessly to ensure equality for women in this sector.

It does this by supporting women to achieve their potential as engineers; to encourage and promote the education, study and application of engineering and to work with organisations and influencers to promote gender diversity and equality in the workplace.

It has never been more important to address the engineering skills shortage and I am delighted that GDST students’ take-up of STEM subjects continues to exceed national averages for girls. In 2014, 61% of our A level students took one or more STEM subject. In the same year, many of our Year 12 students took part in a hugely successful Engineering & Architecture Conference at the Royal High School, Bath. This included interactive workshops and career discussion sessions led by female engineers from, among others, Airbus, BAE Systems, CrossRail and Jaguar Land Rover.

…engineering offers huge potential in terms of job opportunities

Helen Fraser, GDST Chief Executive

At a time when increasing diversity and inclusion are finally being recognised as business imperatives rather than tick-box exercises, engineering offers huge potential in terms of job opportunities. Any of our girls who pursue a career in this sector will also be following in illustrious and well-trodden footsteps.

Dame Meriel Talbot (16 June 1866 – 15 December 1956), an alumna of Kensington Prep School, was the Board of Agriculture’s first woman inspector and director of its Women’s Branch, in charge of the recruitment and co-ordination of the Women’s Land Army. A leader and an exemplary role model for today’s female engineers.

As more women step into positions of leadership in this sector, I have no doubt their achievements will inspire others to become pioneers in their own right.