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Thursday 5 April 2018

First-year mechanical engineering student Megan Kelly talks about her inspirations, her aspirations, and the challenges of growing up interested in ‘men’s stuff’

My name is Megan. I am a woman. It’s nothing special. But there is a shortage of us in the engineering industry we see today.

Yes, it has always been a “man’s thing” to be an engineer, especially in aerospace – my preferred sector – but times are changing. So it is such a shame to see so few of us, to see women turn down an opportunity to join one of the biggest and most diverse industries of all.

Let’s look at a couple of statistics. 25% of the aerospace industry is made up of women – but very few of that 25% are actually employed in technical fields as engineers, researchers, mechanics, technicians, operations etc. And setting aerospace aside, 2018 data from Work, Employment & Society says only 11% of the UK’s engineering workforce are women.

The question that needs to be asked is: “why?”.

Another question. Can you name a famous female engineer?

What about Mary Winston Jackson of Hampton, Virginia USA?

Born 9 April 1921, Mary was the first black female engineer in NASA’s Langley research centre. She started out as a ‘computer’, the people who manually worked out mathematical problems before electronic computers became commonplace – but she stood up when she wanted change, and fought for the right to study at university (a white university at the time) to achieve the degree in engineering she needed.

Mary is quite the role model to many women, whatever race, skin colour or nationality. She proved, during a time of widespread sexism and racial segregation in the USA, that she was capable of doing the same work that a man could do – or a white person, for that matter.

That is quite a feat by anyone’s standards and Mary deserves huge respect. Yet until the release of the film Hidden Figures in 2016, how many people had heard of her? If you had asked people what an engineer looked like, who would have pointed at a picture of Mary Winston Jackson?

Without suitable role models, a lot of women still see engineering as a “man’s thing” –  the greasy, dirty, hard labour that many have come to know from historical pictures, articles and from spoken word.

And so it’s still considered weird for women to have interest in locomotives, in aircraft and ships, in automotive vehicles – and this puts people off. It is a legitimate problem that women feel suppressed by judgement from their male peers.

I had that problem because I have such a broad interest in aerospace. My interest and knowledge are focused on aircraft so much that all my career choices have been aimed towards ANYTHING within aerospace, including the military.

I was bullied, ousted from social interactions and generally ignored because of this passion. Why? Because others considered it ‘not normal’ for a girl to enjoy this sort of thing.

If I was a boy, it would have been nothing out of the ordinary.  Women share the same skills as men, yet the engineering industry is still wildly unbalanced.

But here I am. I found a rare two-year BTEC in aerospace engineering at a specially-built institution called CEMAST, achieving top marks – and now I’m undertaking a mechanical engineering degree at Solent University.

Women, I am calling out to you to follow what your heart tells you to do, even if it means being ‘out of the ordinary’. Forget the rest. Forget the judgement or the remarks. If you want to do something, then prove you can do it.

Don’t let anything put you down.