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Topic Title: Positive discrimination towards women in engineering
Topic Summary: A debate on the issues surrounding the efforts by the IET and other organisations to attract women to engineering
Created On: 03 July 2009 04:54 PM
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 03 July 2009 04:54 PM
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z315870

Posts: 65
Joined: 30 May 2003

At the risk of being lambasted for sexism, bigotry and misogyny (and I don't partake of any of these, I can assure you), I would like to find out what other members think of the way the IET and other institutions are starting to positively discriminate towards women in order to try and increase the number of women entering the profession and retain those who are here.

Please interpret my questions and comments below as being Devil's Advocate, rather than a statement of opinions. I'm trying to start a challenging and lively debate, not a nasty argument. For the record, I am totally against any kind of discrimination whatsoever, be it for or against a minority group.

The IET's homepage has a link at the moment to the Young Woman Engineer award.

Shouldn't the industry judge women engineers by the same standards as all other engineers? Why is a woman worthy of a special prize, but a man not worthy of the same recognition?

It is clear from a quick look around the lecture theatre of any university engineering department that engineering is still a "male-dominated" profession in terms of numbers. I would also not deny that there are some dinosaurs in our industry who fail to show their female colleagues the same respect as their male ones. However, the question remains as to whether it is a good idea to tackle negative discrimination by having positive discrimination in its place.

Are there general "young engineer" awards open to all? Are there awards for male engineers only? What about awards for ethnic minorities or with disabilities? Has anyone heard of any?

Women engineers, how would you feel to be nominated for the special womens' prize rather than a general award? Would you be glad of the fewer competitors? Indignant that you weren't thought to be capable of winning an open prize? Does recognition matter when you were just doing your job?


What are members' thoughts on this issue?

-------------------------
Dr Joe Silmon PhD MEng CEng MIET
Committee Member, Railway TPN
 03 July 2009 05:35 PM
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sfchew

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I believe the intention of the award is to highlight and encourage more women engineers to be recognised.

The number of women engineers have been increasing over the years but it is still a small number.

Regards
Chris Chew
 06 July 2009 10:00 AM
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z315870

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Yes, I understand that the rationale seems to be to try to highlight the achievements of women so that others may be inspired by the example.

However, I feel that this award implies that only the work of other women will inspire more women to join/remain in engineering. I don't follow the logic.

Women engineers know that they are in the minority. The very fact that they are engineers means that they are intelligent enough to realise that. Therefore, nobody should think it unfair if men win an open engineering prize most of the time (provided that the judging is fair). The gender of the winner should not even be an issue.

By maintaining gender as an open and public issue, I think there is a risk that we perpetuate the view that there is a problem, when really there isn't. There are mechanisms enshrined in law to protect all of us from sex discrimination and harrassment. As a professional body, I think we should now be focusing on encouraging all engineers or potential engineers equally.

Yes, there are fewer women in engineering than men, but I don't think this is purely down to discrimination or a negative image of a male-dominated workplace. Look at nursing as an example with the roles reversed: are there fewer men in nursing because they feel uncomfortable in a female-dominated workplace, or simply because on average, fewer men than women find it an interesting job?

If we take the view that it's not totally the industry's fault that there are so few female engineers, we can also surmise that it's not necessarily our place to "solve" what may not actually be (completely) a "problem" in the first place, but rather a manifestation of the differences in nature between men and women. I don't believe it's sexist to recognise that, in general, there are differences in the way men and women behave. Plenty of literature has been written on the subject.

If we don't take affirmative action, though, we must still ensure that at all times we present ourselves as open-minded and non-discriminatory. My suggestion is this: that we don't make a fuss over women engineers, or any other minority group, but that we always conduct ourselves in a way which demonstrates that we are open to all and welcome everyone who has what it takes to be a good engineer, regardless of who they are. The achievements of any individual should be judged purely on their merits, not on the nature of the individual - and recognition should be given accordingly.

If we must have a womens' prize, then in the interests of fairness, we must also have a mens' prize, of equal value and status. However, I don't like that kind of division, personally. The best solution is what mbirdi suggests, a prize open to all. That way, everyone will know that the winner is the one judged to be the best on their merits.

I think mbirdi's comments on Physics highlight an interesting issue. People know what physics is, but do they really know what engineering is? Ask someone on the street and they'd probably think of the guy who comes to fix their boiler (not helped by that guy writing "Heating Engineer" on his van, of course - that should be forbidden, somehow: you don't get first aiders calling themselves doctors). Perhaps if more female students knew what engineering actually was, then proportionately they might be more interested? A bit more information surely can't hurt, in any case.

-------------------------
Dr Joe Silmon PhD MEng CEng MIET
Committee Member, Railway TPN
 06 July 2009 01:32 PM
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amillar

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Pretty much anyone who has been involved with developing engineering education knows that this is a huge problem in the UK. Basically, study after study shows that at secondary school level girls see engineering as a "male only" profession irrespective of their skills. Should we be worrying about this? It depends on whether we want all the brightest and best school leavers to at least consider engineering as a profession, or whether we are happy to allow 50% of them to be discouraged from doing so just because they happen to have bumps in their jerseys.

What no-one has yet found is an effective way to persuade girls at school that engineering is a viable, and even potentially enjoyable, profession. However, the generally accepted view (which I think I would tend to agree with) is that far more role models are needed. This is the idea behind "woman engineer of the year" awards, to give a method for identifying and promoting those role models. Whether it is an effective method is probably a very worthwhile subject for discussion, personally I suspect not: award winners tend (for obvious reasons) to be exceptional, whereas what may be more important is to present those who have succesful careers in the everyday world. But given that this is the purpose of these awards then having a corresponding "male engineer" award would be of little value, the boys are already being encouraged by other means (at the moment).

I don't believe it's sexist to recognise that, in general, there are differences in the way men and women behave. Plenty of literature has been written on the subject.

And equally plenty of research has shown that the differences within genders are far, far larger than the differences between them (although it's much less fun to admit that). I don't think we can get away from the fact that this is primarily a sociological rather than a psychological problem. Society we can do something about.

-------------------------
Andy Millar CEng MIET CMgr MCMI

http://www.linkedin.com/in/millarandy

"The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress." Joseph Joubert
 08 July 2009 12:54 PM
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z315870

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I understand completely the IET's purpose in having a Young Woman Engineer of the Year award, but I oppose it because it is fundamentally unfair, regardless of the noble reasons behind it. I don't think that this kind of unfairness is the way to encourage more of anyone into the profession.

Granted, this is a sample set of 1, but I asked one of my female colleagues how she would feel to win this award and her reply was that it would feel like a non-achievement because it wouldn't be a fair competition. I wonder how many other female engineers feel the same?

I agree with Andy's comments, and I think that this issue of recruiting our "fair share" of women is a really tricky one. I think it's very interesting that he points out that award winners tend to be exceptional people and may not be the wisest choice for role models.

Perhaps what is needed is for pairs of engineers, one female and one male, to tour schools giving presentations on the work that they do, and the experience of being engineers. By including both sexes, this would provide some appeal for both sides. I think this is the kind of thing Andy was suggesting. Perhaps we could introduce an award for the best/most prolific school-touring presentation team?

I don't agree that boys are already being encouraged into engineering by other means. In the 9 years since I started my undergraduate degree, the intake size at my university has shrunk by around 50%. I would hazard that the proportions of females and of foreign students have remained roughly the same within that reduced group, although I have no firm figures, only an impression.

We should not be trying harder to encourage women into the profession than men. By selling our profession as a career in schools, in a way that shows clearly that both sexes can be successful, we should be able to be equally attractive as a career to students of both genders.

-------------------------
Dr Joe Silmon PhD MEng CEng MIET
Committee Member, Railway TPN
 09 July 2009 12:51 AM
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westonpa

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Personally I have no problem with the IET giving a young woman engineer of the year award or encouraging women to get involved in engineering. If a woman chooses an engineering job over another then that leaves what would have been their other choice open for someone else.

However most people, both male and female, will have made their career choices long before they hear of the IET. The real award of any job is the making a difference, benefits, work, challenges to solve, enjoyment of doing something we want to do, getting some positive feedback from our customers, etc.

Regards.
 09 July 2009 10:21 AM
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amillar

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Originally posted by: z315870
We should not be trying harder to encourage women into the profession than men.

The problem is that girls are still not taking up physics and DT in school as much as boys, irrespective of their abilities. It's not a subtle difference, it's a huge difference. And unfortunately it does seem to be due to entrenched attitudes. (I do have a vague memory that it has also been found that female graduates are less likely to stay in the engineering profession than male graduates, and that this was found to be partly or largely because of perceived sexism in the industry, but I'd need to check my facts on this one.) So unfortunately, I believe there is some extra effort needed here. There's certainly no easy solution - I get heavily involved in running many different schools engineering challenges, and whilst there is no difference in abilities between girls' and boys' teams the difference in self-belief is huge. (As a footnote, this seems to be very much a secondary school issue, at primary schools I find the girls are often, if anything, more committed than the boys to engineering activities.)

Personally I tend to see this as two seperate issues, one is to promote awareness of the truth about the engienering industry to everyone, and another to break down entrenched attitudes that 'girls don't do techy stuff'.

And, yes, I really like the idea of pairs of engineers doing schools presentations, I'm sure it would be equally true that all female engineers doing presentations would put the boys off.

-------------------------
Andy Millar CEng MIET CMgr MCMI

http://www.linkedin.com/in/millarandy

"The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress." Joseph Joubert
 09 July 2009 01:51 PM
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westonpa

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What will be the benefit to engineering of having more women engineers?

When people go into schools what 'truth about the engineering industry' is presented?

The culinary profession is still considered to be dominated by men. Should we also present the truth about this because of the entrenched attitudes that women do not do cooking? How did this come about when traditionally mums did the cooking at home, girls were more inclined to play with cooking toys, the early role models were women and school cookery classes were traditionally aimed at women?

Women are intelligent and those that want to become engineers do and those that choose other careers do so because that is what they want.

Regards.
 09 July 2009 04:15 PM
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amillar

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Statistics show that they aren't taking up Physics in schools at GCSE and A level. From memory the latest figures showed that the situation was improving, but that there was still considerable room for improvement.

-------------------------
Andy Millar CEng MIET CMgr MCMI

http://www.linkedin.com/in/millarandy

"The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress." Joseph Joubert
 11 July 2009 11:08 AM
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jencam

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I don't see what all the fuss is about. You can take a horse to water but you cannot make it drink a drop. Personally I see that trying to encourage more women to take up careers in science and engineering will turn out like efforts made by teachers to encourage my son to participate in rugby at school - an activity he hated and could not see the point of. Is there really a good reason to increase the number of women in engineering? Remember that the end user of machinery rarely gives a damn who designed and developed it (hence engineers being regarded as unsung heroes) so female input is only likely to be of importance in machinery used mainly by women.

A more sensible strategy will be one that provides a suitable and effective system of support for people who WANT a career in engineering but are in a position where achieving such a career is DIFFICULT due to factors including:

1. Lack of personal contacts within the engineering industry.

2. Possessing a high level of technical knowledge mainly obtained from public domain sources combined with a lack of knowledge and understanding of how the engineering industry really works and what it is like to work as an engineer and what is expected from an engineer in industry.

3. Having certain disabilities or personality traits that are frowned upon by managers and interviewers, usually out of fear or misunderstanding.

I hazard a guess that there are hundreds, or even a few thousand, of youngsters in the UK in these and other positions which are denied the opportunity to become engineers due to a notable closed shop attitude of the engineering industry.

Cultural issues certainly play their part in deterring women from studying science and engineering subjects but culture is a difficult thing to change. I enjoyed science subjects at school and have O Levels in physics, chemistry, and biology despite not being encouraged by my own family to take them. There have been times when it has crossed my mind that if I was born a few years earlier I would have studied science to higher level and ended up in a scientific or engineering career. During my later years at secondary school, my interested moved away from traditional science towards computers, which resulted in me studying an A Level in computing at college. The course was very male dominated at the time. My parents were less than impressed about my choice of A Level and held the view that computers were toys for geeky boys.
 11 July 2009 12:39 PM
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westonpa

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You make some good points jencam with which I agree.

But come on if the relevant people implemented your suggestions it would leave little room for those who seek to socially engineer society and/or be seen to implement the latest politically correct fad. To them it does not matter if the field of engineering is improved or if the relevant persons are any happier because they only care about the statistical numbers.....and of course their mention on Sky TV or in the Sun newspaper etc.

Regards.
 11 July 2009 01:13 PM
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jencam

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Originally posted by: westonpa
But come on if the relevant people implemented your suggestions it would leave little room for those who seek to socially engineer society and/or be seen to implement the latest politically correct fad.


Political correctness is the crux of the matter. I find it somewhat disturbing that an outfit such as the IET should even consider going down the road of political correctness even if the temptation exists to achieve a brief moment in the limelight of the media.
 11 July 2009 04:23 PM
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eswnl

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1. Lack of personal contacts within the engineering industry.

I think this is purely based on luck.



2. Possessing a high level of technical knowledge mainly obtained from public domain sources combined with a lack of knowledge and understanding of how the engineering industry really works and what it is like to work as an engineer and what is expected from an engineer in industry.

It's having commercial awareness isn't it?
Every job is different. A company that builds a final product eg. a car, relies heavily on suppliers/contractors for individual parts. Therefore communication and managing with suppliers becomes an important skill.
This kind of job would take a systems approach to engineering, which might not appeal to some people, because the technical knowledge becomes superficial.


3. Having certain disabilities or personality traits that are frowned upon by managers and interviewers, usually out of fear or misunderstanding.


I was described as being shy in an interview. But if the job is purely technical this might not matter so much.

Edited: 11 July 2009 at 04:32 PM by eswnl
 11 July 2009 09:12 PM
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z315870

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jencam, thank you for your input. Guessing by the context of what has been said, I think you are our first female contributor on this thread.

I agree that the IET is not a body which should be practising political correctness, and your ideas on what would be more useful for potential engineers feeling at a disadvantage are far more constructive than a blunt instrument aimed at a single perceived problem.

I think it would be interesting to explore your comment about engineering's "closed shop" attitude. The IET would surely like to think it is very much an open shop - is that something which isn't permeating through industry? In what way are we a closed shop?

I hope you managed to convince your parents that computers were in fact a toy for geeks of either sex

I must protest at eswnl's view that technical knowledge becomes superficial for engineers taking a systems approach. Virtually all systems engineers have a degree in a domain such as electrical, mechanical etc (there are very few undergraduate degrees in systems engineering). I would say that taking a systems view requires a good deal of knowledge in multiple areas. If they are to be successful, this level of knowledge must be far better than superficial.

-------------------------
Dr Joe Silmon PhD MEng CEng MIET
Committee Member, Railway TPN
 12 July 2009 09:10 AM
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jencam

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Originally posted by: eswnl
I think this is purely based on luck.


In an equitable society luck would be almost completely factored out of the equation. My own definition of a disadvantaged background for children is not poverty or coming from a single parent family living on a council estate, but a lack of personal contacts who are in the occupations the children are interested in joining.

It's having commercial awareness isn't it?


Not quite. It's that if a candidate generally understand the workings of a company then they are more likely to be hired than somebody who doesn't.

I was described as being shy in an interview. But if the job is purely technical this might not matter so much.


It does matter because candidates have to overcome the prejudices and biases of interviewers and managers, or are subjected to unrealistic and unjust examinations such as certain types of personality profiling tests.
 12 July 2009 10:44 AM
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amillar

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So is it alright for girls who would otherwise be interested in engineering to be put off by the "boys locker room" mentality that exists in many schools and in much of industry, just because otherwise we might be (oh no!) being politically correct? On a particular point raised above, I have never met anyone (in a huge amount of school's work that I have done) who has talked in any way about forcing girls to take up engineering, just removing the silly and unnecessary barriers. Still, engineering could be a really useful study area for schools' history departments as to what life was like in all the other professions in the 1950s!

Anyway, this discussion is pretty irrelevant, as there are plenty of agencies working more or less effectively to make this happen.

-------------------------
Andy Millar CEng MIET CMgr MCMI

http://www.linkedin.com/in/millarandy

"The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress." Joseph Joubert
 12 July 2009 11:17 AM
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jencam

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Originally posted by: amillar
So is it alright for girls who would otherwise be interested in engineering to be put off by the "boys locker room" mentality that exists in many schools and in much of industry, just because otherwise we might be (oh no!) being politically correct? On a particular point raised above, I have never met anyone (in a huge amount of school's work that I have done) who has talked in any way about forcing girls to take up engineering, just removing the silly and unnecessary barriers.


The "boys locker room" mentality no longer exists in schools because almost every subject is compulsory nowadays for GCSE. I would be interested in the girl to boy ratios for electronics or systems and control GCSEs, but these subjects are only offered by a fraction of secondary schools.

Higher education is a different story. The classes my son attended at college were very male dominated.

When I attended secondary school, there were O Level options, and I can assure you that science subjects were male dominated and very few girls took metalwork. In contrast, most of the very few boys who took home economics were interested in a cooking or food related career.

I'm unable to comment on the "boys locker room" mentality in the engineering industry, although I certainly would be interested in knowing what the silly and unnecessary barriers are.

Still, engineering could be a really useful study area for schools' history departments as to what life was like in all the other professions in the 1950s!


Too right. The school history curriculum gives little coverage to engineering and its impact on society. This was something my son complained about back in Y8. When I studied O Level history at school, the only engineering was textile machines from the 18th and 19th centuries and a bit about railways back in the days of George Stephenson.
 12 July 2009 01:00 PM
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westonpa

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Originally posted by: amillar

So is it alright for girls who would otherwise be interested in engineering to be put off by the "boys locker room" mentality that exists in many schools and in much of industry, just because otherwise we might be (oh no!) being politically correct? On a particular point raised above, I have never met anyone (in a huge amount of school's work that I have done) who has talked in any way about forcing girls to take up engineering, just removing the silly and unnecessary barriers. Still, engineering could be a really useful study area for schools' history departments as to what life was like in all the other professions in the 1950s!


No disrespect to your opinions but women only think the "boys locker room" mentality still exists in schools and industry because you are telling them it does in order to keep them buying your services. This is the 'wrap everyone in cotton wool attitude'.

Pretty much anyone who has been involved with developing engineering education knows that this is a huge problem in the UK.


Of course they do because it adds to their own importance and pay packet for solving 'huge problems'.

Basically, study after study shows that at secondary school level girls see engineering as a "male only" profession irrespective of their skills.


And yet many women have become engineers and continue to work in the industry. Still maybe they did not see the study or the "boys locker room" and followed the career of their choice.

What no-one has yet found is an effective way to persuade girls at school that engineering is a viable, and even potentially enjoyable, profession. However, the generally accepted view (which I think I would tend to agree with) is that far more role models are needed.


All them clever people and they finally come up with the idea that more 'role models' are needed. And these are the people who have been doing the persuading for the past few years......lord help us and the girls.

Ensuring that both male and females have equal opportunities, and of course know about these opportunities, is a positive thing but I would have to question if someone who still thinks there is a 'boys locker room mentality' is the correct person to do it. If a person has this incorrect understanding then how can their knowledge of industry be reliable?

Anyway, this discussion is pretty irrelevant, as there are plenty of agencies working more or less effectively to make this happen.


Yes this is the classic we know better than everyone else attitude.

Regards.
 12 July 2009 01:32 PM
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jencam

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It's really more of a cultural problem than anything else. Certain careers are heavily dominated by women with far fewer people complaining about why men are not attracted to them. I can vaguely remember reading that there were fewer than 50 men who teach in nursery or reception classes in primary schools in the whole of England. The psychology profession also shows a heavy bias towards females.

Something that has intrigued me for many years are why so many toys are gender specific rather than unisex. Even toys that clearly can be unisex are often produced in a girl's version in pink and a boy's version in a more sensible colour.
 12 July 2009 04:41 PM
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z315870

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At this point, having read the (at some times) heated posts previous to this one, I would like to raise one minor point. The picture on the IET front page illustrating the award link is of an attractive, slim young woman. I wonder how keen the IET will be to promote their new role model in publicity, should they choose a female engineer who possesses neither of these qualities?

Is, perhaps, one of the important qualities of a female role model her attractiveness - to make the career look glamorous to girls? (Devil's Advocate again, personally I think it shouldn't matter)

Does anyone think that a female engineer is going to be impressed if she wins the prize because she's photogenic enough to make us look good on leaflets and posters?

I must protest at Andy Millar's pronouncement that this discussion is irrelevant. I think it is very relevant, because I and possibly several other contributors think that this kind of activity is counter-productive and shows us in a bad light.

We cannot sell engineering careers to right-thinking women by promising them preferential treatment. We might attract a few through these strategies, people looking for an easy ride, but they won't exactly last in a tough industry which requires resilience and a real passion for the job.

I don't believe we need a prize to highlight "token" women who get put on a pedestal for all to admire as something special. A woman who achieves something great in engineering is no more or less worthy of a prize than a man who achieves something of equal greatness.

If we must have a female engineer to be a role model then let us call her what she is: an ambassador from Engineering to women in education. Let's not try to dress it up as some sort of achievement or prize. It's simply a job to be done, just as important as the hundreds of volunteers who populate the IET's Professional Networks and committees.

If there are prizes to be handed out, let them be open to all engineers, within the category of the prize (and I don't think gender is a valid category! This isn't athletics.) I may not have done anything that warrants extra recognition, but I'd like to think that if I had, I'd be able to enter for a prize and not be excluded on the grounds of my Y chromosome.

-------------------------
Dr Joe Silmon PhD MEng CEng MIET
Committee Member, Railway TPN
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