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Survey finds that people struggle to name women engineers

7 March 2011

A survey to mark International Women’s Day has revealed that a startlingly low percentage of the population can name a woman engineer.

Nearly 1,750 people who took part in a recent survey by the UKRC were asked if they could name a famous, outstanding or senior woman engineer. Just 35% said yes to this, even though nearly 70 per cent of the survey participants were engineers themselves or worked with engineers.

Of the non-engineers polled, the number dropped to less than 20%.

The woman named most often (63 times) was Jean Venables, an outstanding British civil and public health engineer.

“I am delighted and surprised to be the most famous woman engineer in the UKRC’s survey,” said Jean Venables. “When I started, there were very, very few women in this profession.

“Yet engineering saves more lives than medicine, and it is essential to the way we live our lives. It is also forward-looking, coming up with new ways of communicating and solutions to challenges such as climate change. For the best ideas and initiatives engineering needs diversity: it is essential that women are part of this.”

“For International Women’s Day we want to celebrate the contribution of women engineers,” said UKRC Director Annette Williams. “Currently, only seven per cent of engineers in the UK are women, so perhaps it is no surprise that so few people could name a famous woman engineer.

“But engineering is a vital profession, offering solutions to many of the challenges we face today. It is time to celebrate the 21st century contribution of engineers, and to make sure that women get a much higher profile so we can inspire talented young women as well as men to become engineers.”

The survey participants were also asked to name any famous engineer (living or dead). Nearly half named the Victorian pioneer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The three other engineers named most often were also from the Industrial Revolution: Thomas Telford (named 101 times), James Watt (30 times) and George Stephenson (26 times).

The first living engineer to be named came fifth – James Dyson, the inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner, cited by 22 people.

The only woman to make it to the top ten list of any engineer, male or female, living or dead, is another Victorian – the extraordinary Ada Lovelace, mathematician and inventor of computer programming, who 13 people named.

The UKRC is the lead UK organisation working to promote women’s participation in science, engineering and technology. It ran the survey to mark International Women’s Day, and to celebrate its Ingenious Women Project for women engineers, which is funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The survey was available online for anyone to take part, and a wide range of people also took part at the Otley Science Festival. The survey was taken up enthusiastically by many engineering organisations, networks and individuals.

The top ten women engineers named were:

 *     Jean Venables CBE (named 63 times) civil and public health engineer, leads Venables Consultancy, Chief Executive of the Association of Drainage Authorities and first woman president of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE)
 *     Marie Curie (58) Nobel prize winning chemist
 *    Ada Lovelace (42) mathematician and early computer programmer
 *     Grace Hopper (24) American computer scientist and United States Navy officer
 *     Professor Dame Ann Dowling (20) Cambridge professor: combustion, acoustics and vibration
 *     Professor Julia King CBE (19) engineer and Vice Chancellor, University of Aston
 *     Hedy Lamarr (17) US actress, scientist, mathematician and inventor of spread spectrum communications
 *     Professor Dame Wendy Hall (13) Professor of Computer Science, Southampton University
 *     Jane Wernick (10) a structural engineer, leads Jane Wernick Associates
 *     Professor Dame Julia Higgins (8) Professor of chemical engineering, UCL

To see the full results of the UKRC’s engineering survey, visit:

UK Resource Centre for Women (UKRC)
Listerhills Park of Science and Commerce
40-42 Campus Road

Tel: 01274 436485
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