Why fight for equality goes on for women in engineering after 100 years

Lynette Willoughby, a former president of the Women's Engineering Society, has been involved in celebration events in Leeds marking the organisation's centenary pictured in the Brotherton Library at Leeds University.'Picture Bruce Rollinson
Lynette Willoughby, a former president of the Women's Engineering Society, has been involved in celebration events in Leeds marking the organisation's centenary pictured in the Brotherton Library at Leeds University.'Picture Bruce Rollinson
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As Leeds marks the Women’s Engineering Society’s centenary, past president Lynette Willoughby explains why its fight for equality remains as relevant as ever. Chris Burn reports.

From being told she couldn’t apply for a dream job on British Antarctic Survey missions due to a lack of female toilet facilities to having her letter complaining about a sexist cartoon in The New Scientist magazine published next to an even more offensive one, Lynette Willoughby has no shortage of stories of the challenges she has faced during a career in engineering dating back more than 50 years.

Duchess of York (Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the late Queen Mother) opening the first International Conference in Science, Commerce and Industry in 1925 ' an event hosted by the Women's Engineering Society in Wembley, London. Picture courtesy of the University of Leeds.

Duchess of York (Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the late Queen Mother) opening the first International Conference in Science, Commerce and Industry in 1925 ' an event hosted by the Women's Engineering Society in Wembley, London. Picture courtesy of the University of Leeds.

The mission to engineer change in for women in science

And while the former president of the Women’s Engineering Society, which is celebrating its centenary this year, passionately believes things are improving for women in the male-dominated scientific field she says the reasons for the organisation’s existence are as relevant as ever. Just 12 per cent of the UK’s engineers are women, the lowest percentage in Europe.

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“You don’t need a men’s engineering society because the others are basically for men,” Willoughby, a 69-year-old retired lecturer at what is now Leeds Beckett University, explains. “It is about people thinking it is perfectly reasonable for a woman to go and study engineering. Nowadays if a girl said I wanted to do engineering people might think it was unusual but wouldn’t think it was weird like when I did it.”

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Pioneering Yorkshire women played a central role in setting up WES a century ago - inspired by the suffragette movement and unhappy at women who had held vital engineering posts during the First World War being pushed out of jobs by men returning from the frontline - and 100 years on, the county is taking the lead in marking the anniversary and highlighting the often-overlooked achievements of females in the field.

Leeds University is running a seven-month project called Electrifying Women, which aims to “change the future, celebrate the present and remember the past of women in engineering”. Led by Graeme Gooday, a professor of the History of Science and Technology at the university, and Dr Elizabeth Bruton of the Science Museum in London, the project will include a series of nationwide public lectures as well as ‘Wikithons’ to update and expand Wikipedia entries about female engineers which are often short on detail.

Professor Gooday says it is part of the project’s broader aim of increasing public awareness of the long participation of women in engineering. “We have a long history of women in engineering that seems to be a surprise to many people. The aim is just for everyone to realise the history of women in engineering is much richer than previously thought, to take down the barriers and show there is this historical precedent and a rich history.”

Willoughby has already contributed to the initiative by giving an introduction to a lecture given by Professor Gooday on female engineers at Leeds Central Library last month, while the Feminist Archive North she volunteers at is cataloguing a collection of material on women in science and engineering in the Special Collections at Leeds University library.

She says the material - and her own experiences - highlight how far things have come in recent decades. Born in Sheffield, Willoughby grew up in London and attended a girls’ grammar school where her passion for science as well as art was encouraged. She was the only girl in her year who wanted to study physics at sixth form but school managed to make it work by allowing her to share classes with the older and junior years. Willoughby says growing up with three older brothers helped her pursue her interest in engineering. “I didn’t mind being weird. You had to be willing to stand out and seen as a bit unusual and bit weird and not let it bother you.”

She went to the University of Surrey in 1968 to study Electrical and Electronic Engineering and was the only woman in her class of 40.

“Only about 12 per cent of engineers are women now but when I was at university, about one per cent were women. I was at Surrey University and on my course I was the only girl among 40 blokes.

“I didn’t mind being surrounded by blokes at all but on our first week we went for lunch in this pub and the order was 40 beers and one sherry!”

During her time at university she started to become interested in teaching after being disappointed by much of the standard of education she was receiving.

“I had some brilliant lecturers but for the most part it was awful - they would just talk and write these equations on a blackboard, we would copy it down and if you didn’t follow it, it was seen as your hard luck. I hated it and felt like I never wanted to see another transistor for the rest of my life.”

She also got an insight of the difficulties facing women in her chosen field. She had hoped to be a scientist who travelled to the Poles but after attending a talk by a representative of British Antarctic Survey, she was told it wouldn’t be possible. “He said ‘I’m afraid we don’t accept women because we don’t have toilet facilities in the Antarctic for girls’,” she recalls. “I’m a Yorkshirewoman and a caver and it didn’t seem that should be a barrier to me. I was so disgusted they didn’t accept women.”

BAS only changed its rules to enable women to work on ships and at research stations in Antarctica in the 1990s but Willoughby fulfilled her own lifetime ambition to visit Antarctica herself by visiting after in recent years in what she says was a “fantastic” trip.

After her initial degree was followed by two years researching the teaching of engineering, she moved back up to Yorkshire to become a science teacher at Foxwood School in Leeds, before taking a job as a physics technician at Leeds General Infirmary where she worked with fledgling brain-scanner technology.

This was followed by teaching electronics and computing at a women’s training workshop in Leeds which had received public funding as part of efforts at the time to increase female employment in such fields.

She went on to do an MSc in Microprocessor Engineering at Bradford University in 1985/86.

“I planned to go and work in industry. During that time I was very involved in the Women’s Engineering Society and I had this idea you had to work in industry to be a proper engineer. I applied for a job or two but didn’t even get an interview. At the time, I was pretty annoyed. There was possibly some sexism but it was probably my age because at the time I was 35.”

Instead, Willoughby ended up becoming a lecturer at Leeds Polytechnic after a woman she knew who worked there encouraged her to apply for a job. “She said she was tired of being the only woman in the department.”

She stayed there for 24 years, teaching everything from computer hardware to professional skills for computing students and the social and political implications of technology, before retiring in 2005 - also managing to find the time to be president of WES between 1993 and 1995 and completing a Fine Art degree in her spare time from Leeds College of Art and Design between 1998 and 2004.

“Things have changed enormously but not enough,” she reflects of her time in engineering. “There are more women going into technology now and there is less overt prejudice.”

She recalls having a letter published in The New Scientist complaining about a sexist cartoon in a previous issue - with her remarks printed “next to a much worse cartoon of this old guy and a Page-3 style buxom woman and the man was saying ‘Girls should have numbers after their names rather than letters’”. “That would be absolutely inconceivable these days,” she says.

She says change has been a gradual process. “It is all drip, drip, drip. Things have shifted because it has been tackled from a lot of different directions. The first WES conference I went to, I walked into a room full of female engineers and thought, ‘Wow, I’m not so weird’. That is a big thing. Other professional engineering societies used to have very few women members.”

Willoughby modestly says it is difficult to know what difference she has made personally.

“All you can be is a role model and show it is possible to do this. I hope I have had a little effect.

“At school I made a conscious decision to do engineering at 16 once I had decided against art college. Even at 16 it was obvious it would be very difficult to earn a living as an artist.

“It is very interesting work, you work with people all the time. Some of the stereotypes of engineers as being inarticulate and having no social skills have some truth but there are lots of others too. There is diversity.

“The other thing I wanted to do was to make a contribution to society. I think engineers are making a contribution and it is an opportunity to do so.

“The different jobs I have done are an example of the diverse possibilities of an engineering education.”

Willoughby has some simple advice for women considering a career in engineering. “You have to be fairly robust and have to be willing to give as good as you get. But breaking down stereotypes can be fun.”

Society’s roots in Yorkshire region

Yorkshire women played a key role in the foundation of the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919.

Lady Katharine Parsons, from East Riding, was married to turbine engine inventor Sir Charles Parsons and the couple encouraged their daughter Rachel to become an engineer. Rachel was the first president of the society and Katharine the second.

Another founding member of the organisation was Halifax’s Laura Annie Willson, a committed suffragette, who had been jailed twice for her political activities but was awarded an MBE in 1918 for her work during the First World War as manager of the women’s section of her husband’s lathe-making factory.

The extraordinary Willson was also the first female member of the Federation of House Builders.

For more information about the Electrifying Women project and how to get involved, visit its dedicated website