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Building on a century of women in professional engineering

20 June 2019

The Women’s Engineering Society (WES) is 100 years old this year. WES Council members Dr Sarah Chen and Yasmin Ali, both professional engineers working in the energy sector, call on all civil engineers to help achieve gender parity in engineering.

Building on a century of women in professional engineering
The Women’s Engineering Society has achieved much in 100 years but cannot achieve gender parity in engineering alone

This year marks the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), which was founded in 1919 by a group of pioneering women. Having been welcomed into the profession during World War I, they faced pressure to give up their jobs for men returning from military service. WES supported and promoted these women, who had experienced avenues of work they had never previously considered available to them.

A 100 years on, the challenges are very different, but WES principles live on. As a professional network, we continue to address the shortage and gender imbalance in engineering. The feedback we receive from many of our members leads us to believe that the same issues persist across the engineering disciplines, including civil engineering.

Engaging a wider audience

Alongside supporting aspiring and professional civil engineers, the society’s centenary year will focus on three themes to help continue raising the profile of women in engineering: remembering the past, celebrating the present, and transforming the future. Through campaigns taking place during the year, we'll be hoping to engage a wider audience. WES invites members of ICE to become involved in our celebrations and supporting our mission.

One of the ways we'll remember the past is through our National Lottery Heritage funded WES ‘Centenary Trail’, celebrating people and places that have been a key part of our history over the past 100 years.

Through a series of ‘wikithons’ and public events, we'll create an online map using new and improved Wikipedia pages to showcase 100 years of female engineers, and ensure their stories are told on the fifth most-visited website in the world.

Before starting the project, the number of British women engineer entries were very low, with only 17% of biographies in English being about women, and entries for women engineers were negligible.

We'll celebrate the present through various activities and events. These include the WES annual conference and awards such as the Top 50 Women in Engineering in partnership with The Telegraph, the Karen Burt Memorial Award for the best newly chartered female engineer and the WES Young Woman Engineer prize.

Transforming the future

Our 2019 celebrations that lead us into transforming the future include our conferences for both students and apprentices.

We hope that by demonstrating wonderful female ambassadors and the amazing career opportunities available to today’s academics, future engineers are born. We also encourage ICE members to consider becoming a mentor in the WES mentoring programme Mentorset. There's no cost, and you'll be growing your own career, as well as someone else’s.

A day of festivity which encourages future engineers and one of the main celebrations in the society’s annual calendar is ‘International Women in Engineering Day’ on 23 June 2019.

We encourage ICE professionals to be involved in the day, whether organising a large event or sending a simple tweet with the hashtags #INWED19 and #TransformTheFuture. Remember that if you inspire just one girl to choose an engineering career, it could quite literally transform their future.

For all the society’s efforts, achieving gender parity in engineering is not something women can solve alone; we must engage everyone.

This year, while WES is remembering the past, celebrating the present, and transforming the future, we hope to enlist a wider audience to help us make change. It might appear to be a small change, but it might just be the one that makes the biggest difference.

This article is based on the authors’ briefing article in the latest issue (172 CE2) of the ICE Civil Engineering journal.

  • Dr. Sarah Chen , Council member, Women's Engineering Society
  • Yasmin Ali, Council member, Women's Engineering Society