A centenary celebration for women’s engineering

Materials World magazine
20 Dec 2018

The Women’s Engineering Society has seen some significant figures and important events in both equality and engineering. Dawn Bonfield looks over the society’s last 100 years.

This year the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), believed to be the oldest women’s engineering organisation in the world,  celebrates its centenary. The First World War saw a significant number of women play an important role in engineering and technical roles for the first time, as they served in their thousands as munitions workers, aircraft builders, and in many other specialist areas.

In 1919, Lady Katherine Parsons – founder of WES and wife of the industrialist Sir Charles Parsons – gave a speech on the role of women in engineering and shipbuilding at the victory meeting in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, where she described the skilled work carried out by women, and the money and resources that had been spent on their training during the war. In her speech, she explained how 1.5 million women had received training in schools, costing the country over £30m – a staggering figure at that time – but that when the war ended, these women were prevented from continuing in these roles by the Restoration of Pre-war Practices Act, which was intended to give jobs back to the men who had been away. Parsons famously wrote that it had been a strange perversion of women’s sphere – to make them work at producing the implements of war and destruction, but to deny them the privilege of fashioning the munitions of peace.

So, a group of seven women, including Parsons and her daughter Rachel, Lady Shelley Rolls and Laura Annie Willson – a lathe factory owner, housebuilder and engineer from Halifax – got together to set up the WES to support women in these technical roles, and to help them continue to train and work as engineers. WES was to be managed by Caroline Haslett, who went on to become one of the most influential women of her era. Her achievements include being the sole female delegate to the World Power Conference in Berlin in 1930, the first woman to be elected a Companion of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) in 1932, the first female member of the British Electricity Authority – later called the Central Electricity Authority – in 1947, and the President of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women in 1950.

A growing society

In 1924, through the work of President Mable Matthews, WES formed a spin-off organisation called the Electrical Association for Women, designed to popularise the domestic use of electricity. This organisation, which continued its work until 1987, developed the All Electric House in Bristol in 1935, and was instrumental through its
use of training, publications, booklets and tea towels in getting women to feel confident using electricity and labour-saving electrical appliances in their households, thus freeing them up to enter the labour market.

Another important role of WES was its work lobbying for women to be allowed to become members of the learned societies. Engineer Hertha Ayrton, who had studied maths at the University of Cambridge, UK, was the first woman to be proposed as a Fellow of the Royal Society, but was refused admission because she was a woman – and married. The next approach to the Royal Society was made by the WES in 1922 through Caroline Haslett, but much later in 1945 the first women fellows were elected – crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale, biochemist Marjory Stephenson and pharmacologist Edith Bülbring.

Another interesting member of WES was Miss C Griff, alternately known as Cleone de Heveningham Benest, an early member of the Iron and Steel Institute (1921) who was a metallurgist and a keen rally car competitor. As a consultant engineer she offered expert advice on automobile, electrical and mechanical engineering. Her garage workshop for lady motorists in Mayfair, London carried out mechanical repairs and gave courses in motor mechanics and factory practice for women supervisors in munitions factories. Her Birmingham factory made domestic implements out of stainless steel, coloured by an innovative system of her design.

In 1937, WES appointed its most famous president, Amy Johnson – the record-breaking aviator who had completed a number of solo flights, including from England to Australia, as well as accompanied flights from London, England to Cape Town, South Africa, and Wales to the USA. Her achievements made her one of the most famous women of the time, and she was also one of the first women to qualify as an aero engineer. Her mysterious death in 1941 – a crash landing in the River Thames, a long way off course while delivering a plane as part of her Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) work – only added to her fame. The ATA itself was established by prominent WES members, including its commandant Pauline Glover.

Promoting women

After World War II, WES continued its work – hand in hand with the Electrical Association for Women – to inspire, train, support and promote the work of women in engineering. Its publication, The Woman Engineer – which has since been digitised and is available in its entirety online at the archive of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) – documents not only how women have continued to struggle for recognition in this field, but also how times and society has changed over the past 100 years.

WES continued to struggle to promote engineering to women throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with very little support from industry or government. And women continued to be underpaid for their equal work. It was hoped that the Soviet space programme, which employed many women in technical roles, would help the case of promoting women in engineering roles here in the UK, but disappointingly the government shied away from backing the employment of women, preferring to suggest in the Social Survey of 1961 that they teach instead of do.

But this changed later in the same decade, when Shirly Williams MP supported the Women in Engineering year, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the WES in 1969. Women for the first time were actively encouraged to take up engineering careers. Networking groups within professional institutions and companies grew more common, and in 1984 Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) was established by the Engineering Council and the Equal Opportunities Commission as a result of the Finniston Report on the future of engineering.

Into the modern day

Since this time, the work of organisations such as WES and WISE has continued to build on an acceptance that more diversity in engineering is a desirable thing – not least due to the identified skills gap but because it was recognised that diverse teams create better outcomes, and as a result, activities to promote engineering to under-represented groups are now widespread.

WES continues to lead many campaigns to support and inspire women in engineering, including International Women in Engineering Day, which was established in 2014 to mark the 95th anniversary of WES, and is now an annual UNESCO-sponsored international awareness day taking place on 23 June. The WES mentoring scheme, MentorSET, established in 2002 continues to support many women engineers across all sectors, and the new Returners scheme addresses the difficulties of women returning to work after career breaks. In 2019, WES is planning a census of women in engineering to paint a full picture of the industry and identify areas to focus on in future.

Over its century, WES has administered many grants and awards to support women engineers, including £100,000 given out from a legacy left by Doris Gray to support women in Scotland. It also celebrates the best newly qualified chartered engineer through the Karen Burt Award, named after the prominent physicist and council member, which was won in 2013 by IOM3 candidate Professor Molly Stevens. The society gives the WES Prize annually to a young woman of the year at the IET Awards, and has its own annual Haslett Lecture and awards ceremony, where prizes include the Amy Johnson Award for inspiration, and the Men as Allies Award.

In 2016, WES launched the first Top 50 Women in Engineering list in collaboration with the Daily Telegraph, and a number of IOM3 members were included in this inaugural list celebrating influential women, such as Liv Carroll, Dame Sue Ion, Professor Helen Atkinson, and on the 2018 list, Katie Atkinson, a materials engineer from Jaguar Land Rover.

Today WES supports women engineering students through its annual student conference, now in its tenth year, and recently established the Apprentices conference, held for the first time in 2018.

WES’s Centenary President, Dawn Childs, is a prominent woman engineer herself who knows only too well the struggles of raising the percentage of women in engineering. Her advice is, ‘If you are inspired by the remarkable accounts and intrigued by the promise of engineering and, importantly, the significant impact that women can have within engineering, then please pass the message on. If you are already an engineer, please speak openly and often about your own remarkable and interesting story. If you know girls who are currently in education, please suggest that they explore what a career in engineering could be for them. Progress has been very slow, but we now have some momentum and we can truly accelerate. What better tribute to the magnificent women of the past would there be?’

The centenary campaign seeks to celebrate the 100-year history of WES and the pioneering women who have worked as engineers and in technical roles since the end of World War I. A Centenary Trail across the UK will pick out notable places and people, and populate a UK map of remarkable achievements. WES is calling on everybody in engineering to celebrate this centenary year, and to draw out the often hidden stories of women in our histories through the No More Hidden Figures campaign, to make these stories more widely accessible as inspiration to the next generation.

*Dawn Bonfield is an IOM3 Fellow, former President and CEO of the Women’s Engineering Society, and founder of International Women in Engineering Day, Magnificent Women, and the Top 50 Women in Engineering List. She is currently at her own company, Towards Visio,n and is a Visiting Professor at Aston University, UK.