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21 June 2024

Women In Engineering Day 2024

International Women in Engineering Day aims to raise awareness of women in engineering, promoting engineering careers for women, and celebrating the valuable work of women engineers. The Women’s Engineering Society’s theme for INWED 2024 is #enhancedbyengineering, spotlighting the women who have enhanced everyday lives and are building towards a brighter future. Mechanical engineering Associate Kathryn Sayer looks at stereotypes and the history of women in engineering, and shares her thoughts on gender parity in engineering and patents, and why it matters.

A minority, but not an anomaly

When I gained a place to study mechanical engineering at university, comments about how unusual it was for a girl to study engineering outnumbered any congratulatory praise. Similarly after graduating, upon revealing my degree subject, I was almost always asked how many girls were on my course, rather than why I chose to study engineering or whether I enjoyed it. This conversational focus on my being a minority because of my gender singled me out as an anomaly – the woman engineer – and at times risked amplifying my inevitable imposter syndrome in a heavily male-dominated field. Data indicates that only 16.5% of engineers in the UK were women in 2021, having risen from just 10.5% in 2010[1]. The woman engineer may be a minority, but should not be seen as an anomaly.

Challenging stereotypes

Oxford Languages online dictionary defines an “engineer” as “a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or structures” or “a person who controls an engine, especially on an aircraft or ship”. Conjuring up images of people dressed as mechanics operating heavy machinery, the traditional view of what an “engineer” is can seemingly perpetuate not only the idea of the woman engineer being an anomaly, but also the stereotype that all “engineering” is what I would call “heavy engineering” – e.g. automotive, aerospace, and machinery related technology.

At least in my experience, the reality of studying a mechanical engineering degree is that while yes, I had to do metalwork workshops wearing a boilersuit, the majority of my time was spent doing really complicated maths, and grappling with mind-boggling scientific subjects and derivations of fluid mechanics formulae, with the end goal of then applying those learnings to design and develop solutions to solve real life problems. I didn’t build any engines, or go near a single aircraft or ship. Instead, I designed equipment for a paralympic swimmer, investigated the material properties of ceramic femoral heads for hip replacements, and even studied graphic design and life drawing.

It’s not just rocket science

I am hugely passionate about banishing the misconception that engineering is only about engines, which sadly for some, reinforces the stereotype that engineering is a gendered subject centred around “boy hobbies”. One of the reasons I love working in IP is the variety of technologies I get to work with, and I’ve seen first-hand that engineering is not just about cars and space rockets, and ranges from the super complex to the brilliantly simple.

My message this Women in Engineering Day is that there are brilliant engineers all over the world developing incredible solutions to real life problems in all kinds of industries – not just vehicles and other stereotypically “engineered” products. Think Dyson’s supersonic hairdryer and high-tech hair curlers and straighteners[2]. Think medical devices, cosmetics, and food. Think everything. Engineering is everywhere. It’s all around us.

Summer of ‘69

A year before the 1970 Equal Pay Act came into being, 1969 saw man first set foot on the moon, and the 50th anniversary of the Women’s Engineering Society. 1969 was promoted as Women in Engineering Year, launched by the Minister for Education and Science, Shirley Williams[3]. It was put to Williams in parliament that year that “in Russia one engineer in three is a woman whereas in Great Britain the comparable figure is one in 500[4]. Progress has been made since the revolutionary summer of ‘69, but unfortunately the woman engineer is still a minority.

Women who shaped modern technology

Although historically engineering has been a more heavily male-dominated industry than it is today, we have women inventors to thank for some of history’s most useful inventions. Many of us couldn’t live without windscreen wipers, invented by Mary Anderson[5], or the first commercially successful dishwasher by Josephine Cochrane[6], and the disposable nappy by Marion Donovan[7]. Women inventors have also contributed precursors to many advanced technologies, such as actress and inventor Heddy Lamarr who pioneered the technology that later formed the basis for today’s WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth communication systems[8], and Maria Telkes’ invention of the first solar-heated house.[9]

The patent gender gap

With women forming such a small proportion of the engineering workforce, it’s not a surprise that women inventors account for just under 13% of patent applications globally, according to a study by the UK IPO[10], and only 16% of PCT applications[11]. WIPO estimates that gender parity among PCT listed inventors will not be achieved before 2064[12], and in an effort to ramp up efforts to bridge the gender gap in IP, shone a spotlight on women in IP for its 2023 World IP Day campaign[13].

The gender gap in patents is inevitably attributed to the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), but the gap varies between disciplines. Biotechnology is the sector with the highest proportion of women inventors, at 53%, closely followed by pharmaceuticals at 52%[14], according to UK IPO data. At the other end of the spectrum, the EPO has reported that mechanical engineering has the lowest share of women inventor patent filings, at just 14%[15].

Territory wise, continuing the trend posed to Williams in parliament in 1969, Russia leads the way with the highest share of women inventors, at 18% between 1998-2017, with the UK falling short at just 9%[16]. Regardless, WIPO data generally shows encouraging trends worldwide, with the share of PCT patent applications with at least one named woman inventor having increased to 35% in Asia and 33% in North America by 2017, albeit being just 17% in Africa, and 24% in Europe.

Why diversity matters

Circling back to the inspiration for this article, International Women in Engineering Day 2024, and the theme of #enhancedbyengineering, let us not forget that the goal of engineering, at least as I was taught, is to apply science and maths to solve problems – not just to build engines and machines as per its traditional dictionary definition. Aside from attracting untapped talent and forming a more diverse and inclusive workforce, there are far reaching benefits to be had by improving gender parity amongst engineers and inventors alike.

Engineering for women

In the medical field, much clinical research has been based on the assumption that males can serve as representative of the entire human species, despite increasing awareness of biological and physiological differences, beyond the reproductive, between the sexes[17]. A recent report by the Global Women’s Health Index[18] highlighted issues with a lack of progress in women’s health in the UK. Not only do women remain underrepresented in clinical trials, meaning that conditions which only affect women are under researched[19], but the gender imbalance in engineering and patents may inevitably have held back progress in femtech (technology tailored towards women’s health – e.g. fertility solutions, period-tracking apps, pregnancy and nursing care, women’s sexual wellness, and reproductive system healthcare[20]).

Crash test dummies based on the “average” male body are another example of engineering that forgets about women[21], putting lives at risk, with women being 47% more likely to be seriously injured[22] and 17% more likely to die than men in a car crash[23]. Whilst designing vehicle safety systems for both the 95th percentile of men and the 5th percentile of women may be more difficult and time consuming, lives could be saved.

These examples show that women are often forgotten in engineering, and it seems logical that in a world where the majority of engineers and inventors are men, there will be more motivation to solve men-focused problems than women-focused problems, such as those relating to women’s health. As highlighted in Caroline Criado-Perez’s book “Invisible Women”[24], in a world largely built by men, we are living in a world built for men, and we are systematically ignoring half the population.

It’s time to start engineering for women.

[1] https://www.engineeringuk.com/research-policy/diversity-in-engineering/women-in-engineering/

[2] Click here to access

[3]  Click here to access

[4] https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1969/apr/24/engineering-profession-recruitment-of

[5] https://www.invent.org/inductees/mary-anderson

[6] https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/josephine-cochrane

[7] https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/marion-donovan

[8] https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/hedy-lamarr

[9] https://www.hsbrenewables.co.uk/my-post

[10] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/gender-profiles-in-worldwide-patenting-an-analysis-of-female-inventorship-2019-edition

[11] https://www.wipo.int/wipo_magazine_digital/en/2023/article_0005.html

[12] https://www.wipo.int/wipo_magazine_digital/en/2023/article_0005.html

[13] Click here to access

[14] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-49843990

[15] https://www.epo.org/en/about-us/statistics/patent-index-2023/statistics-and-indicators/applicants/women-inventors

[16] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-49843990

[17] https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1115616

[18] https://hologic.womenshealthindex.com/sites/default/files/2024-01/MISC09031_HGWHI_Y3GlobalReport_Final_Digital.pdf

[19] https://www.femtechworld.co.uk/news/this-should-be-wake-up-call-uk-government-urged-to-take-action-as-progress-in-womens-health-stalls/

[20] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Femtech

[21] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/feb/23/truth-world-built-for-men-car-crashes

[22] https://medium.com/hh-design/the-world-is-designed-for-men-d06640654491

[23] https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/811766

[24] Click here to access