What do you get when you put several passionate exponents of women in engineering, side-by-side, with a brief to recommend how Government can improve diversity in the workplace? Answer: the opening sessions of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills’ Select Committee Inquiry into Women in the Workplace, which took place on November 20 at Portcullis House, Westminster.
Another answer to the above question could be: not enough time to get across dozens of key messages and recommendations, despite the fact that the Committee had already received a large number of written submissions, including one from the Royal Aeronautical Society. Such was the huge response to the call for written evidence that the October 5 deadline had to be extended to Christmas.
Before it opened, the Inquiry received a welcome boost when Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour devoted two of its programmes to the issue of Women in the Workplace. Such is the interest being generated by the Inquiry that it was soon moved to the Grimmond Room to allow the oral evidence of witnesses to be broadcast on the Parliamentary TV Channel.
Given the high level of interest in the Inquiry, it was an honour for the Society to be invited to give oral evidence on the opening day. Representing RAeS on the second panel of the morning was Clare Walker, CRAeS, Chairman of the RAeS Women in Aviation & Aerospace Committee (WAAC).
After a slow start as her panel wrestled with the thorny issue of what effect the Gender Equality Duty* was having on diversity, the witnesses were soon jostling for air-time to put across their views.
Fortunately, there was considerable agreement on the key points. For women to progress in industries where they are poorly represented, such as aviation and engineering, they need inspiring role models, opportunities to network, persuasion while still at school that women can and do fulfill these jobs, a more female friendly work environment, encouragement to take up apprenticeships and equal pay for equal work.
Clare Walker commented that there was evidence that more companies were employing heads of diversity, encouraging women’s networks and supporting what the Society was doing to improve diversity in the industry. While discussing the need to encourage more women into apprenticeships, she highlighted the achievements of Rolls-Royce’s Cassandra Leicester who had actively chosen the apprenticeship route in preference to gaining her qualifications through university. Cassie, who is also a member of WAAC, became the first woman to be chosen as Rolls-Royce’s Global Trainee Apprentice of the Year – leading to her featuring in The Guardian’s supplement Women in Engineering, published on November 12 this year.
A leaking pipe?
A major problem is the leaking pipe – which starts early in childhood, with the toys girls are given to play with, through school, university and into work – which causes women to be lost to engineering, she explained. When the witnesses were asked if they thought women were hard-wired not to be interested in engineering, Clare Walker commented: “Are they pre-disposed towards saying they do not want to be engineers or is it that they have never been exposed to it or been excited by the challenges of engineering?”
She suggested industry and schools need to take a different approach to site visits and insist that participants are equally representative of the sexes. The problem with aviation and aerospace is that much of the work goes on behind closed doors – even pilots are locked into their cockpits. Yet evidence shows that when girls are exposed to the reality of engineering today, rather than the outdated “oily rag” image of old, their eyes are opened.
As the session drew to close, Clare Walker argued passionately about the importance of having inspiring role models to look up to. “The evidence shows that if a woman cannot see other women doing better than her further up an organisation, she is likely to walk away. We need those inspiring role models. That is a lot of what we are trying to do: showcase women who are doing incredible jobs.”
She told the MPs: “I wish you had all been with us a couple of weeks ago at our RAeS ’Inspiring Excellence’ conference. There was a woman talking with great excitement about the fuel system of an Airbus A380 – she wanted to entitle her talk “50 Shades of Fuel”. There was another talking excitedly about composites and what they were going to do and there was a video of a female captain on an air‑sea rescue operation, which had your heart in your mouth.”
All these speakers just happened to be women, demonstrating that women can and do work in these and many other challenging and exciting jobs. The session ended with Clare Walker being quizzed on her aviation career. She told the MPs that when she left school in the mid-1960s, you could count the number of women commercial pilots on two fingers.
Yet 166 women had flown for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in World War II, ferrying every type of aircraft from fighters to four-engine bombers and even Britain’s first jet-engine aircraft. British Airways didn’t take on its first female pilot until 1987 and the RAF didn’t have its first operational woman pilot until 1992 – and she was not allowed to fly fighter aircraft. “So there simply was no career in aviation open to me,” she explained.
The Inquiry continues.
* Gender Equality Duty is a legal requirement on all GB public authorities, when carrying out all their functions, to have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination and harassment on the grounds of sex and to promote equality of opportunity between women and men.
Clare Walker is a Companion of the Royal Aeronautical Society, an elected member of its Council and the founding Chairman of its Women in Aviation and Aerospace Committee.