Women in Engineering – Lessons we can learn from the Lionesses

With the Lionesses making history this summer, we look at the rise of women’s football and the similar underrepresentation faced by women in engineering.

England women's team Euro 2022 Final

According to FIFA, there are 29 million women and girls playing football worldwide with the aim of facilitating 60 million by 2026.

The FA reported that last year, 2.63 million women over the age of 16 played the game in 2021; a rise in participation of over 60% in the previous year.

The Women’s Engineering Society (WES) reports that 16.5% of all engineers are women, a 6.5% increase in the previous 10 years. Whilst heartened by the change, it is a much slower pace than needed for gender equality. We take the opportunity to look at the remarkable growth of women’s football across the world to see what we can learn to encourage more women and girls to take up engineering careers.

A brief history of women’s football in England

Dick Kerr Ladies'teamThe first women’s football match to be played in the UK was in 1895 and the first international game was played 26 years later in 1920 when Dick Kerr’s Ladies beat a French side 2-0. Such was the popularity for the game, it saw attendance grow to 53,000 on Boxing Day that same year.

In 1921, The FA banned women from playing on Football League grounds saying “… the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged” – a ban which took 50 years to be lifted.

The Women’s Football Association (WFA) was formed in 1969 and in 1994 the FA Women’s Premier League (FAWPL) was formed. The late 90’s saw the FA outline their plans to develop the women’s game from grassroots to elite level with Centres of Excellence for Girls established and sponsorship gained for both League and Cup competitions.

The popularity of women’s football in England soared over the next two decades, as the team qualified and played in major European and world stage competitions including the Olympics.

Phil Neville was appointed as The Lionesses head coach in 2018 with sponsorship by Barclays in what is believed to be the biggest-ever investment in UK women’s sport by a brand.

September 2021 saw Sarina Wiegman appointed as head coach with just 10 months to prepare for Euro 2022, leading the Lionesses to bring home the silverware for the first time in history with a 2-1 win over Germany at Wembley stadium, a victory not just for women’s football, but for English football.

Lessons from the Lionesses

woman in high viz jacket and hard hat

So, what lessons can we learn from the Lionesses to raise the profile of women in engineering?

Firstly, to remove the barriers for girls and women to study STEM subjects, and, at a grassroots level, by inspiring girls and women that they can be whatever they want to be. Admittedly women’s football has a long way to go to reach gender pay parity – unfortunately following the trend of a lot of industries – but how often do we see how much a female engineer can earn? What she’s designed? How often do we see pictures of engineering teams with equal gender representation, or more women front and centre than men? How often do male engineers celebrate their female colleagues outside of International Women’s Day and similar awareness events? Engineering is one of the highest paid sectors but is not often considered by girls in school. Or if it is, it is still difficult for girls to imagine a career which isn’t prominent in our daily lives. It’s hard to remain motivated when tackling stereotypes or feeling like you don’t belong in a group.

Famous women engineers ought to be taught in school for this reason, for example Mary Anderson who a hand-operated device to clear the windscreens on cars. In 1917, another woman, Charlotte Bridgwood, patented the first automatic windscreen wiper. Or Hedy Lamarr, a global film star in the 1930’s and 40’s who developed ‘frequency hopping’ which allowed the US military to control weapons and other devices remotely – the same technology forms the basis for what we today know as WiFi.

The pace of change in women’s football has accelerated in the last few years with mainstream media exposure and lucrative sponsorship deals. How can this be replicated for women in engineering? Is it up to business leaders to invest time and resources into highlighting the career opportunities for women in engineering? Whether this involves giving career talks, showcasing their achievements on social media, or inviting girls and young women into businesses to see the work firsthand.

Another part of the problem are the potential setbacks suffered by women opting for maternity leave and raising a family alongside their career. Or equally, those who may not want children, but it is assumed that at some point they will and that their priorities will change. Men are not penalised in the same way for their want or lack of want of a family. This applies to women in sport as much as any industry, but within sectors with a gender imbalance, it’s important to acknowledge the potential bias of senior leadership – even if there is no ill intent. Favouring a male employee over a female employee because of bias could lead to job stagnation and lack of promotion opportunities for women. The answer to this is for workplaces to offer a greater work/life balance that includes childcare assistance for both men and women.

Not her problem

Ahead of the 2022 Uefa European Women’s Football Championship, EE created ‘Hope United’ a mixed-gender squad of footballers to push back against online misogyny.

As a result, they highlighted the responsibility of men to ally with women during the Euros, encouraging them to own and challenge the problem of sexist abuse online and elsewhere.

How about calling for male allies to prevent, report and stamp down misogyny and sexism in engineering? We need allies that will stand up and remind others of the role men play in creating an inclusive environment where women feel they belong.

There needs to be a zero-tolerance attitude towards glib comments and exclusionary actions. It doesn’t have to be ‘obvious’ discrimination to have a negative effect; innocuous daily comments can have just as much of an impact.

A change in culture

Words are powerful. Feeling excluded by language can have a lasting cultural impact. We hear it every day in generalised speech without questioning it: scientists are often ’he’ and footballers are inferred to be male. Students hear careers advisers or teachers talking about ‘he’ the welder and ‘she’ the hairdresser all the time. With our unconscious bias towards male and female jobs, we make women in science and engineering invisible.

Comments such as ‘don’t want you to chip your nails’ or the assumption that women’s duties include making cups of tea and coffee are examples of microaggressions that back up the stereotypical ‘male-dominated’ industry.

Kelly Simmons OBE, the FA director of the women’s professional game, has seen first-hand the influence that female representation can have, both within football and in the wider corporate world.

In a recent interview with Raconteur she said “It’s hugely powerful and it’s really important because you can’t be what you can’t see. It’s important for young women to look up and see other women and think, ‘Yes, I can get there. I can have it all. If I want a family, I want a career, if I invest in my development and work hard, I can come through to the top.’ That visibility is really important”

Whether we like it or not, we are all a product of our upbringing and surroundings. To understand that science and engineering careers are realistic options, women need to see the evidence that those they identify with, people like them, can and do succeed. They also need to know that the people around them see science and engineering as valid choices for them.

Having that network of women support each other, having male allies, is tremendously important. They’re key to helping drive change. We have to make sure that pipeline of female talent is there, that isupported and that we invest in the leadership and development and mentoring of women.

The history of football is male-dominated. As is engineering. Our job is to make women in engineering much more visible and inclusive and show that roles in engineering are for everyone.

women in engineering during war times

And it’s not like this is a ‘new’ career choice for women. During World War I, women entered the workforce to replace the men recruited in armed forces. When the war ended, the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act of 1919 declared that soldiers were to return to their previous job roles. The Women’s Engineering Society (WES) was founded in the same year, to address this pressure and protect the new inclusion of women in the engineering industry. Women have always been capable, always had potential, always had the desire to succeed in these kinds of roles, from football to engineering. Society is only just catching up.