A women invented the bullet proof vest – let’s hope female scientists no longer need them

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Despite progress being made in terms of equal opportunities and equal pay for women, young, ambitious females can still face a difficult decision when making their career choice due to perceived ‘male-dominated’ industries. As we previously reported, over a third of teenage girls in the UK think their gender will harm their future career prospects. This is particularly disappointing given that most male-dominated professions boast a skill set that women could perform as well as, if not better than, men.

One such profession is engineering. The world of engineering is vast and open, with engineers required in many different industries and lines of work — everything from computing, to space exploration, to national defence. The job involves critical thinking, advanced problem solving, and intricate, expert crafting — despite these being character traits traditionally associated with the female gender, engineering is perceived as a male profession. Luckily this is changing, and there has never been a better time for young women to be considering a career in engineering.

The essential engineer
An engineer can be the unsung hero of many original projects, and while you may have only considered engineering in terms of manual work, greasy overalls, and a wrench, this sells the profession short significantly. Engineers will design, manufacture, and maintain all different aspects of a project, and this extends to many types of industries. It is a complicated, highly skilled role that will be respected in its workplace.

Mechanical engineering, for example, involves the designing and maintaining of machines — from everything as large as steam-powered pistons, to the intricate pattern of tiny cogs found in your wrist watch. Chemical engineering, on the other hand, involves using chemistry to transform raw materials into new functional compounds. Given how broad the spectrum is for both of these lines of work, the application for engineering work is limitless, hence job opportunities being great in number.

Small changes, big differences
Engineering isn’t about reinventing the wheel of course, and the most esteemed engineers will spot an opportunity to make small changes to something that will yield a hugely positive result. For example, forklift supplier Impact Handling recently won the FLTA Environmental Award for Excellence in recognition of their CarerZ80H. This was due to mechanical changes that promoted reduced levels of vibration and noise as well as lower energy consumption. While the engineer on this project hasn’t saved the world as such, the impact that this change could have on energy consumption in the forklift industry alone is huge, and well worthy of the recognition.

Go your own way
While engineering does require expert training and tutelage, there are several different routes you can take to enter the profession. The two primary routes are the graduate route and the apprenticeship route. There is no right or wrong way, and your decision should depend on the type of person you are and how you prefer to learn — learning is always the most important element in anything you do.

Those who are more academically inclined should perhaps consider going down the higher education route — college and undergraduate study will more than likely be fully funded, but if you wish to work in a particularly specific area of engineering, you may eventually have to also study at a post-graduate level, which could be costly.

Engineering apprenticeships are ideal for those who prefer learning on the job, honing practical skills, and receiving a career-specific education. Apprenticeships allow young people to secure formal, recognised qualifications while also receiving full on-the-job training. What’s more, they will also feel the short-term benefit of receiving a wage while they do it. While apprenticeships are mainly taken up by boys, there is no reason why young women cannot consider this route an attractive option. Research from Demos (as reported here by All About School Leavers) suggests that further encouragement for females to undertake apprenticeships could eventually narrow the gender pay gap — this is something that should be emphasised in schools across the country.

Role models
Consider the role of inspirational women such as the late Stephanie Kwolek (her obituary can be read here in The Guardian), whose work in chemical engineering lead to the production of Kevlar. The use of the ultra-durable Kevlar in bulletproof vests has literally saved thousands of lives, while the inclusion of the material in aeroplane fuselages has necessitated the ease of modern air travel. Kwolek was only offered the position in 1946 due to the amount of men away at war, and while she may have stood out like a sore thumb, she used her opportunity to research and invent something that changed the world.

With the opportunities you have ahead of you, and the support to help you along the way, there is no reason why those interested should not pursue a career in engineering, regardless of their gender.

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