Cat Savage: The future of engineering is diverse
The first female President of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects (RINA) and vice chair of IMarEST’s Naval Engineering Special Interest Group reflects on International Women in Engineering Day.
It’s hard to argue with numbers. According to analysis by EngineeringUK, in 2021, just 16.5% of engineers in the UK were women.
Women are significantly underrepresented in the industry, but organisations like the Women's Engineering Society are working to address the imbalance. This Friday, the society is running the seventh annual International Women in Engineering Day, which looks to raise the profile of women engineers like Professor Catriona Savage.
As paltry as the 2021 figures are, they do represent an increase. An earlier EngineeringUK analysis showed that in 2010, women made up just 10.5% of the UK’s engineers. This figure is likely higher than when Savage started her marine engineering career in the 1990s. “When I started it felt like women were more of a novelty than it does today. Now, women are a bit more common, including an increasing number in leadership roles – but we are still not common enough based on the [EngineeringUK] figures,” says Savage.
Change is positive but slow; Savage has seen more proactive action by organisations and professional engineering institutions, as well as an increasing number of men championing and being allies for women in engineering.
While addressing the balance of women in engineering (and improving diversity in the industry as a whole) is important unto itself, Savage notes that “engineering is about solving the problems of today and tomorrow. If you want to understand the problems and come up with solutions that work, you need to have the views of a diverse population.”
It begins with raising awareness
Naval architecture wasn’t Savage’s first choice of career. In fact, for much of her schooling, she hadn’t even heard of it. “I always enjoyed Science and Maths more than anything else. When I chose my A-Levels, I wanted to do Chemistry at university,” says Savage, but during her A-Levels, Savage’s interest in chemistry began to dwindle.
“I really loved ships and sailing. I thought, I know aeronautical engineering exists. I'm sure people must do the same thing for ships,” says Savage. A trip to the school’s careers library led her to marine engineering. “Although interesting, it wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. Then I found this thing called naval architecture, covering whole vessel design, structures, stability, manoeuvring… those, for me, were the interesting areas.”
Even today, with the internet at our fingertips, “I don't think there's enough visibility of some of these more unusual engineering disciplines that might attract people,” Savage explains. “[There are still] many misconceptions about what engineering is, but there are also some excellent resources available to help people find out more, for example, the ‘This is Engineering’ campaign by the Royal Academy of Engineering. This helped to demonstrate the massive breadth of opportunities in engineering.”
Starting early is key
For Savage, introducing children to engineering at an early age is essential if it is to be perceived as a viable career option. “By the time children are coming to late primary school, they're already setting their expectations,” Savage explains. For women in particular, “this is as much about educating parents and teachers as it is about kids knowing that it's an option,” says Savage, noting that she was fortunate enough to attend a school where she was supported in her study and career choices.
Looking beyond women in engineering, a better appreciation of the skills that different types of engineering careers need would also help open up the industry. For example, Savage notes that “people who are neurodivergent can have traits that are not typically celebrated or seen as a strength at school but, can be really valuable if you're an engineer. As a specific example, there is a good article written by Engineers Without Borders UK on dyslexia.“
“Whether you're analytical, practical with your hands, a natural leader, or an organiser, there's something interesting and challenging for you in engineering and maritime.”
Learn more about the IMarEST Women’s Network.
Dr Sam Andrews is a marine ecologist and science writer