Portrait of an engineer

In the UK’s #YearofEngineering, we meet some of Bath’s brightest engineers and find out what drives their ambitions.

In November, a University of Bath graduate will be orbiting the Earth. NASA astronaut Major Anne McClain (MPhil Aerospace Engineering 2004) has been selected for a six-month mission on the International Space Station. Major McClain will join a long line of women who have been into space but, while there are some stellar role models out there, inspiring more girls to become the next engineering stars remains challenging.

Ask a class of 10-year-olds in the UK to draw an engineer and most of their pictures will look the same: a man, in overalls and a hard hat. It’s a stereotype that starts early and sticks stubbornly. Despite women now outnumbering men at UK universities, men are five times more likely to gain an engineering and technology degree than women. I wanted to go behind the statistics, to find out what makes some of our female engineering students tick.

"I’ve always wanted to be an engineer"

“It’s still a surprise when I meet a woman in tech,” admits Integrated Mechanical & Electrical Engineering (IMEE) student Lizzy MacLennan. Lizzy was elected 2017-18 project manager for Team Bath Racing Electric (TBRe for short), the UK’s number one electric racing team in the Formula Student competition at the time of writing.

“I’ve always wanted to be an engineer – I just didn’t know what it was called,” she says. “When I was young I said I wanted to be an ‘inventor’. I played a lot with K’NEX – plastic pieces that you can use to make triangles with really nice angles, so you can build structures easily. We had so much of it that my sister and I used to build six-feet-high rollercoasters for our toys.”

Lizzy’s love of “nice angles” is infectious. This enthusiasm, together with her organisational prowess, is a powerful combination which spurs on her TBRe teammates – most of whom are men – in designing and building their racing car. “The project is very expensive, but we have hit the electric vehicle market at a perfect point so the funding is definitely increasing, especially as we’ve become more successful,” she says. TBRe attracts donations from alumni and corporate partners worldwide: “The boys hate me because I’m really thrifty, but I really try to be a good steward of the money that’s given to us!”

"My strength is getting things done"

Lizzy isn’t the only woman heading up an otherwise all-male tech project on campus. Former University Air Squadron member and Mechanical Engineering student, Hannah Crewe, swapped two wings for two wheels as project manager for Bath Zero, our electric motorbike racing team, which also receives alumni support.

Like Lizzy, Hannah was also clear what she wanted to be from a young age. “I see engineering as just problem solving,” she says, “so doing a degree in it will teach you how to work through it and get to the solution.” Having parents who are engineers (and Bath graduates) helped steer Hannah towards a Mechanical Engineering degree at Bath, and it’s the hands-on aspects of the course, and the opportunities the University provides for extracurricular projects like Bath Zero, which really appeal to her: “What’s great about Bath is how it gears up its students for going into industry.” And, thanks to Hannah’s Air Squadron connections, the team do their testing at the airfield in nearby Colerne. “My strength is getting things done,” she says, “but I don’t think that’s necessarily a woman thing.”

Despite the prevailing argument that your gender confers certain strengths or traits, there’s no evidence for any biological difference between males and females that could explain why so few girls go on to study engineering and technology beyond school. So, is engineering’s pipeline problem psychological rather than physiological?

Dr Nathalia Gjersoe, a developmental psychologist at the University, thinks that part of the answer lies in the idea of ‘self-efficacy’, or the belief that one can succeed in certain areas. “People tend to approach domains where they feel they are competent and avoid those in which they do not,” she explains. “Studies have shown that girls, on average, had much lower self-efficacy ratings in STEM subjects, despite outperforming boys across school subjects. Despite the evidence of their own marks, some girls still seem to succumb to the stereotype that they aren’t as capable in these subjects.”

"I know I'm as good as they are"

Thankfully this wasn’t an issue for fourth year IMEE student Leen Jabban, who grew up in Abu Dhabi. However, her parents weren’t so keen at first – “because they said engineering is so dominated by men,” she explains. “But once they saw how motivated I was, they were really supportive of me.”

Leen isn’t fazed by being one of only a few women on her course. “When I started at Bath, what I noticed more was the cultural differences of being in a new country and trying to keep up with people’s accents!” she laughs. It’s clear that Leen has an understated, but strong, sense of self-efficacy. “Sometimes when I’m doing group work and everyone else in my group is a man, they might not listen to me. But I know I’m as good as they are, and I contribute as much as they do.”

Alongside her demanding course, Leen has joined the kick-boxing society, is learning Chinese and is co-chair of Bath’s Women in Engineering Society (WES), which aims to inspire more women to choose engineering as a career. WES Bath takes inspiration from the national WES which, until last year, was chaired by alumna Dawn Bonfield (BSc Materials Science 1987), whose work to promote diversity in this field earned her an MBE in 2016.

"In younger cohorts, we see a lot more girls wanting to pursue science or maths”

Another active member of Bath WES is Parimala Shivaprasad, who moved from Bangalore to do a PhD in Chemical Engineering. “I was really surprised that there was such a thing as WES in the UK,” she recalls. “At home, you are really encouraged to do engineering, irrespective of gender. At my school, girls outperformed boys in science and there was not that misconception that girls can’t do science or engineering.” However, post-education, it’s a different story. “In India, employers aren’t keen on recruiting women in shift work or plant-based roles, but in the UK it’s the other way round,” she says. “Companies really encourage women to apply, whatever kind of job it is.”

Going out to schools with WES Bath, Parimala has noticed a difference between the younger and older girls’ enthusiasm for STEM. “In younger cohorts, we see a lot more girls wanting to pursue science or maths, but when we do the outreach for 14-year-olds, if they’ve already made up their minds, they don’t want anything to do with it.” Again, this could be explained by psychology. The idea of ‘social belongingness’ – where teenagers feel they fit better in classes that will be taken by more of their own gender – may also help explain why fewer girls choose to study subjects like physics post-compulsory education, which is required to get a place on a university engineering course.

"It’s a great time to start an engineering degree"

Not everyone, male or female, is cut out to be an engineer – it’s a challenging subject that, at Bath at least, requires top grades to get into. Perhaps the real test is spotting those many more girls like Lizzy who enjoy making models out of K’NEX, or Leen who grew up watching MIT videos on YouTube – and empower them to explore their potential.

2018 has been declared the Year of Engineering, with the UK Government launching a campaign to widen the pool of young people who join the profession. Although it’s early days, Leen senses a change in the air: “Everyone is talking about women in STEM and encouraging them, so it’s a great time to start an engineering degree, because there are so many opportunities.”

Speaking of opportunities, what does the future hold for our formidable four? Lizzy is beginning a role as programme manager for a new electric vehicle company and Hannah is following her mum’s example, who’s also a Bath graduate, in becoming a building services engineer. Leen has a year left at Bath to decide between pursuing her dream career designing prosthetics or working for an engineering giant such as Rolls Royce, where she did her placement. Parimala hopes to continue her teaching and research, while also developing an ingenious entrepreneurial sideline: recycling floral waste from religious places, ceremonies and festivals by extracting the essential oils and producing organic manure – an idea which recently won her the Bath Business Plan competition.

And as for Major McClain? She’s preparing for her mission to go about as far as you can in the world – by leaving it. Her achievements are a shining example of where talent, dedication and hard work can get you, and back here in Bath we wish her the best of luck.

Our female engineers may be outnumbered, but they’re certainly undaunted.

This article was written by Rachel Skerry and appears in BA2, the University of Bath's magazine for alumni and friends.