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June 23rd 2021, International Women in Engineering Day

This month our blog is celebrating International Women in Engineering Day. Each year this special day focuses on a topical theme and in 2021 it is ‘Engineering Heroes’, in recognition of the leading role Engineers have played in responding to the COVID pandemic.

A quick look at UK statistics on the participation of females in science and engineering, whether it is in education or work, highlights the need to work towards greater equality and equity for this under represented group:

Only 22% of students sitting A-level Physics, 15% of engineering undergraduates and 18% of apprentices in engineering & manufacturing are female, and only 12% of all engineers working in the UK are women. Indeed, the UK has the lowest % of female engineering professionals in Europe - 10% compared to ~ 30% in Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus (source: https://www.wes.org.uk). So, we have a lot of work to do!

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It is clear that to encourage girls to study science at school and to aim for careers in engineering, we need to enthuse and inspire them and one way to do this is to show role models. So, for this blog I've chosen a personal selection of inspirational women inventors from the 20th century. They are a personal selection, chosen somewhat at random. But they do posses a common thread in that they all succeeded despite being outsiders, that is they were not professional engineers, and were driven by curiosity, determination and a common wish to generate solutions to problems that they saw in their own lives or of those around them.

Their innovations were:

  • the windshield wiper (1903)
  • turning indicators and braking lights on automobiles (1920's)
  • frequency hopping communications systems (1941)
  • video home security systems (1969)

 

Mary Anderson (1866-1953), was a real estate developer who was born in Alabama, shortly after the American civil war. She was an independent and determined woman who built apartments, ran a ranch and was involved in developing vineyards in California. All at a time in the 2nd half of the 19th century, when women were expected to be mothers and homemakers. Her inspiration for the windshield wiper came from travelling on the New York trolley cars, which in the Winter months required the drivers to leave their front windows open so that they did not become covered with sleet or snow. Mary actually had two ingenious ideas in that she conceived of a mechanism that allowed control of an external wiper from inside the driver's cab and suggested that a rubber blade be used for the wiper. In 1917, Charlotte Bridgwood (1861-1929) of Hamilton, Ontario developed the idea further with her patent for the 1st electrically powered windshield wiper. Charlotte passed her passion for engineering onto her daughter Florence Lawrence (1886-1938). For whilst Florence made her name as one of the pioneers of film in the 1910's, being seen as the first movie star, she also had her mother's passion for amateur inventing. She was a keen motorist who saw driving as a powerful signal of women's liberation, saying that: 'The average woman does her own repairing. She is curious enough to investigate every little creak and squawk of her car, and to remedy it.' Florence did a lot more than just repair, she was the first person to propose automobile developments which would go on to become standard components in the industry - an automatic turning indicator and a brake operated stop light.

Interestingly, Florence Lawrence was not the only 20th century female movie star to have a major influence on engineering. Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) was an Austrian-born actress who emigrated to work in Hollywood in 1938. Despite having no formal scientific training, she had a brilliant and inventive mind and was highly active as an inventor as well as a movie actress. Her most famous invention was inspired by wartime demands in 1941. The early Naval torpedoes of this time were radio-controlled and defensive forces soon discovered that this communications channel could be jammed and the torpedo sent off course. In innovative work with the pianist George Antheil, Hedy patented an idea for frequency hopping to avoid jamming and demonstrated her idea with a miniaturised piano system that was synchronised with radio signals. Engineering solutions in response to security concerns was also the motivation for the last of my engineering heroines - Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922-1999). Marie was an African-American living in Queens, New York in the 1960's. She was a nurse, often having to work at night as did her husband Albert, an electronics technician. The high prevalence of crime in her neighbourhood led Marie to conceive the idea of a home surveillance system consisting of a camera, wirelessly linked to a TV set, that provided images through a set of peepholes in a front door. In essence this was one of the first presentations of CCTV. Marie was granted the patent for her 'home security system utilizing television surveillance' in 1969.

In many ways all of these women were ahead of their time, Their work was so highly original that they struggled for acceptance and none of them benefitted financially from their inventions. They also faced, of course, the challenge of being women in a male dominated world. However their brilliance has been validated by the passing of the years; the automotive designs of Mary Anderson and Florence Lawrence were standard components on cars by the 1930's; Hedy Lamarr's frequency hopping concept now lies at the heart of modern radio communications systems, such as Bluetooth where it is used to minimise signal interference; and Marie Van Brittan Brown's idea for home video security has come to full fruition with the digital revolution and is now globally adopted by millions of homeowners through products such as Amazon's ring video doorbell.

 

blog3_picture2.jpgIn my interview this month I talked with Wendy Sadler of Science made Simple. Wendy launched science made simple in 2002 with the aim of communicating science to engage the wider public. She has been spectacularly successful in this and has gained wide recognition for her inspiring work, she was voted Welsh Woman of the Year in 2004, was named as a Laureate in the EU Descartes Prize for Science Communication in 2007, and was awarded the MBE in 2017 for her services to science communication.

Hello Wendy, thank you very much for talking to me today. Can you give our readers an overview of what Science made Simple is about?

Yes, of course. We started in 2002 and became a company in 2004 so we're coming up to 20 years of operation next year and yes, we aim to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Through a branch of our work called Engineering Explained we have set up a series of engineering shows that aim to reach every key stage in the school curriculum. This means that, for whatever age people inquire about, we can offer them a science or engineering, or a combined kind of experience.

We go out and speak to schools all over the UK and internationally. We’re quite focused on trying to increase diversity and so we’re not just trying to reach the kind of students who will become engineers and scientists anyway. You know we really want to try and encourage more people to think that it’s something they can do. Because the research so far, for example the Aspires project at UCL shows that whilst children are very supportive and positive about science, they find it interesting at school and they think it’s relevant to their lives, but they don’t want to be one. So a lot of our work is now steering towards understanding why people do or do not identify as an engineering type of person.

Why is it that children are reluctant to see themselves in the role of scientist or engineer?

I think this relates to personal aspirations and identity. One of the problems, particularly for women, is that if you don’t identify people that you think are like you in roles then you don’t tend to think you can be one. So even though the attainment of girls and boys at GCSE and A-level is equal, the girls’ self-confidence or their identity as a scientist or engineer is much lower. In Science made Simple we’ve tackled this by really focussing on the people who do the stuff, not on the stuff itself.

Another challenge in communicating to a younger audience is the changing medium. Do you find you have to alter how you operate in the age of social media and YouTube videos?

It is difficult but fundamentally we still believe that there is nothing that beats a live, person-to- person experience and so previous to the COVID pandemic we were resistant to putting stuff into video format and making online resources, etc. We also feel that the teachers are really important as the key educators and so we’ve often felt that we have to make sure that they value what we’re doing.

Over the past year we have had some teachers asking us can we watch online or do events online and we have started to consider how we can make this interactively meaningful. We have found some ways to do this but I still think there is something special about a performance of a person coming to your school and being present, in the flesh.

Whilst many people have put a lot of effort into increasing representation for women in STEM subjects, I wonder in your view how much progress have we made?

Well, the statistics still show there is a long way to go, so in that respect it is quite depressing. I will be part of a UK delegation to the Institute of Physics’ International conference on Women in Physics, next month and we will present a paper where the conclusion is we have not really shifted the numbers over the last 20 years. We are kind of stuck at this ~ 22% participation mark (% girls taking A-level Physics and % of women working in the engineering sector).

There are really helpful and successful initiatives though. The Juno project for the Institute of Physics, for example is a really constructive process in terms of making a department feel supported. And of course it is not just about numbers, we need to really think about what makes a difference to our behaviour. Does what we do make a difference to the kind of environment that women and other minorities are coming into. I think we have done really well at that, in supporting people to make meaningful changes in culture.

Does the way in which we teach engineering put girls off the subject? We do tend to concentrate on the ‘nuts and bolts’ rather than the outcomes and societal solutions that engineers provide.

Yes, the way we portray people is important. If we spent more time portraying engineers as entrepreneurs and problem solvers it would be helpful – loads of girls in school that I meet want to run their own businesses and be entrepreneurial. If we could tap into that feeling of empowerment and change the culture of what’s acceptable, challenge biases as to what kind of person an engineer is, it would greatly help.

The WISE people like me campaign showed that just discussing these issues with school classes is enough to shift people’s opinions. It can challenge our unconscious biases and challenge stereotypes like: ‘scientists are usually male’ or ‘engineers only work on bridges or cars’. Off the back of this WISE study an activity was trialled for girls at key stage 3 (age 11-14) in which they took a personality test. Instead of saying ‘would you like to be an engineer?’, it set about establishing their natural skill set, asking ‘what are you good at?’ and ‘what do you enjoy?’ and then matching that to various job aspects of an engineer. This approach establishes what type of person you are then says this is the kind of job that might make you happy and here is a woman in that job, she’s like you.

Thank you very much Wendy for a very interesting insight to your work. To finish off could you tell us what attracted you to follow a scientific career?

Yes, I often wonder what exactly inspired me and you never know exactly, but my Dad was a metallurgist and my Mum was a maths teacher, so I had a family upbringing in science. I do have a very early memory of my Mum playing this game with me in the bath where we had a fairy liquid bottle and tried to balance a ping pong ball on the jet of water from it. This idea of the ball balancing on the jet of water has remained with me and funnily enough years later I worked at Techniquest at Cardiff, where one of their most popular exhibits was a Bernoulli blower that balanced a beach ball on a jet of air. So I always loved science at school, and I also loved music and so did a Physics with Music degree. Over the years I have also been increasingly drawn to engineering as I am fascinated by how things go together, how they work. I guess I just love learning new things, I’ve always just wanted to find things out.

 

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Wendy presenting at Science made Simple's XX Factor show which highlights 6 women in STEM