Monday, August 8, 2016

The Future of Women in Engineering: A conversation with Helen Duncan

Helen Duncan is the former editor of Microwave Engineering Europe, where she was a part of the team that launched the first European Microwave Week. It was there that we at CST first encountered her and over the years, we have had a wonderful relationship. While contemplating the issue of women in engineering we knew that her perspective would be an invaluable one.

I called Helen Duncan the day after the 3rd Annual National Women in Engineering Day.  She has had a long career, getting her degree in Electrical Engineering in 1974. I asked, how does a girl growing up in the mid-20th century end up entering a field that is still dominated by men?
Her answer is elegantly simple, her father was a mechanical engineer. “I grew up talking about technical things at home, albeit about cars. He did in fact, take me to an engineering exhibition when I was about ten or eleven years old. I saw the very early CNC machines, which I thought were absolutely wonderful. You know? Making stuff automatically, then, it was like something out of science fiction.”

She grew up in Birmingham, a center of the automotive industry in the UK. She also went to an all-girls school, which she credits for instilling in her the belief that women could, in fact, do anything.
In fact, she tells me, “It’s still identified that the high proportion of women who go into engineering or technical courses go to single-sex schools.” She continues that the lack of negative messaging that comes from male peers regarding the choice to enter into “male” fields just isn't there. 
“The school actually did try to dissuade me from doing engineering. They said I should do physics instead. I am a little perverse and if someone tells me I can’t do something it just makes me more determined.”

And you would have to be, to fight for the inclusion of women in this intimidating field requires that kind of gumption. It’s clear that Helen had what it takes. She acknowledges that it helps that she was always good at physics, but she says, she was also good at languages and that was a tough choice. A choice made easier by one defining moment, “I was in a physics classroom when I was about 13 and we had to make an electric motor. In a class of 25-30 girls, mine was the only one that worked and the feeling that I got when that happened; it crystallized my ambition.”
When she got to university, she was one of only two girls on the course, out of 100. It was strange going from an all-girls school, but she adapted quite well. Her tutor was especially keen for girls to do electronics, and by the time she graduated, the UK had passed laws ensuring gender equality in the workplace. Her timing was perfect.

We talk about the statistic that more girls get a grade of A or B in their STEM A-levels than boys, but that when they finish their degrees, they are much more likely to not continue working in the field of engineering. Helen finds that disappointing: “That says to me that they are finding -or perceiving - discrimination in the workplace. And I almost wonder if it’s worse now than when I did it. People were quite protective of me...”

She worries about the macho culture that has developed in some technology companies— a culture that could possibly be countered by more networks of women supporting women.
“Women benefit from mentors, either in their workplace or outside, to encourage them and to advise them on how to handle prejudice. That’s one of the reasons I became involved in the IEEE Women in Engineering committee. I think that role is just as important as trying to interest women in engineering, which I’m also involved in as a STEM Ambassador and a member of WISE (Women Into Science and Engineering). We have drinks receptions at events like European Microwave Week, talks about how to cope in the workplace, and that kind of thing. I think that could be one of the biggest obstacles, and the fact that news of how women are treated in the workplace is filtering down to girls. There always seems to be a cluster effect. If you have a number of women engineers with a particular employer, then more tend to join.”

There has always been a sense of safety in numbers, across issues of race, class and gender it has been found again and again that being the only representative of your group results in a high risk of failure. Helen is investing her time and energy into creating an environment in the field of engineering that allows women to feel supported and safe. That is the key, she says, to changing the face of the field. In the early 80s she was the first woman engineer at her company, and after that more and more followed. That is the key to change.

So I ask, if Helen could make one suggestion to a company wanting to increase their gender parity and ensure the comfort of the women who work for them what would it be?
Of course, she has an answer right away. Gender neutral CVs, much like blind orchestra auditions, greatly increases the number of women hired. Then, there’s the issue of family support later on in a woman’s career. The gender pay gap is mostly attributed to lack of retention once women have children, in a society that doesn’t make work/family balance an easy one to maintain, the engineering field as a whole misses out. There is a shortage of qualified engineers, so flexible working conditions for parents benefit everyone. Helen’s company made it as easy as possible to have children and also to remain a part of the office and I’m sure that’s part of why she is still going strong. This is not the case across the globe, though.

There is also a role for better communications to play, the more that women see examples of other engineers who are thriving and not having to sacrifice their work/life balance, the more secure they feel in trying to do the same. When the technology she had specialized in stalled and was clearly no longer going anywhere, Helen transitioned to tackle that very issue. Marketing and communications was a natural fit, she was always a good writer.

Today, she spends a lot of time speaking to young women about the field and she has embraced social media. If you don’t already follow her Twitter feed, I highly recommend it. Helen is plugged into discussions on technical advances, political issues regarding engineering, everything. Recently, she’s been a source on fascinating analyses of the way the recent Brexit vote will affect the field of Engineering in the UK. She is very concerned, to say the least. The European Commission, she points out is crucial to the UK & Europe’s strong entry into the cellular market. Research into the development of GSM and Bluetooth were funded in part by the European Commission. She is not alone in this concern, the outgoing president of the IET wrote an article in the spring detailing the risks for the UK engineering community. Only the future will tell, but Helen is watching cautiously and worriedly. She has spent so much of her career bolstering the UK telecoms and wireless engineering industry. It’s easy to imagine the uncertainty she feels.

We laugh about shifting the conversation to something so political, so we talk about what kinds of messages are most valuable for young women and girls who hope to become engineers. Helen received this advice in school and stands by it.
 “Don't close any doors that will limit what you can do in the future. Even if you aren't top of the class in maths, don't give it up. Sticking with it will open lots of doors for you.” She laments that schools often pressure students into courses where they will be assured good grades- but taking a strange combination of courses unrelated to your career goals is good for the school, but not for the student.

That advice works all the way into someone’s career, she says- “Just remain open to any opportunities that come along. If I had been asked at the age 16 what I wanted to do, I would have said I would go into a research lab and stay there for the whole of my career. But I’ve changed the whole direction of my career on two or three occasions. Just see what opportunities are out there and seize them when they arise.”

Helen Duncan can be found on Facebook, Twitter and her PR company is called MWE Media- learn more on her site.

She will be participating in the European Microwave Week Careers Platform, which is sponsored by CST.

To learn more about women in engineering, and see how you can get involved visit IEEE Women in Engineering or the NWED page.