The gender agenda

This month's issue of <i>Eureka</i> carries an interview with Philippa Oldham, head of transport and manufacturing for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. In the piece, she describes her experiences as a female engineer and makes it clear that, with a couple of isolated exceptions, they have been overwhelmingly positive and that her male colleagues have been supportive.

All of which leads one to ask why it is necessary to highlight the fact that a woman has succeeded in engineering at all? There is an argument that says that to do so is self-defeating as it only serves to emphasise the rarity of women engineers. Stressing this scarcity, it is argued, serves to dissuade other girls from joining the profession and thus the status quo of male domination is maintained. There is a certain inescapable logic to this argument. Indeed, one has great sympathy for any female engineer who rises to the top of her profession because at some point she is almost bound to be asked questions that relate to her gender rather than her skills or achievements. Clearly this is not right. No one woman can be held as representative of her sex - no more than can any man. Equally, it unreasonable to ask every woman who makes it to a certain level as an engineer to act as a role model. For this reason, as a journalist, I have some sympathy with the argument that it is both reductive and counterproductive to focus unduly on gender when talking to or writing about a female engineer. That said, there is no way of getting around the fact that engineering in the UK is an absurdly male-dominated profession. Estimates put the number of female engineers in the UK at a paltry 7% of the total. Given that stark and shameful fact, it would be not only difficult, but disingenuous in the extreme to try and ignore the gender issue when talking to one of that 7% about their career. As elephants in rooms go, that is a pretty big one. One, in fact, that it would require an almost superhuman effort of will to ignore. Of course we all hope for a time when the question of gender is no longer relevant in discussions with or about a particular engineer; when all it is necessary to mention are the person's achievements, ideas or skills. However, the sad truth is that that time has not yet come. And, until it does, it remains vitally important that the message that there are simply nowhere near enough women in engineering is iterated.