Where are the Women Engineers?

By on March 31, 2017 in

Beatrice (Tilly) Shilling wasn’t a typical child of her time. Growing up in Surrey she bought her first motorbike at the age of 14, back in 1923. She lived to be 81 and during her life completed a Degree in Electrical Engineering, a Masters in Mechanical Engineering and a PhD.

Tilly Shilling raced Norton Motorbikes, that she modified herself, at Brooklands becoming the fastest female racer ever at the circuit achieving a lap speed of 106 mph for which she was awarded the Brooklands Golden Star. It’s hard for any biker today to even imagine what that would have felt like on a 1930s Manx Norton 500 and a Brooklands track surface of the time. Tilly married fellow engineer George Naylor in 1938, reputedly refusing to do so until he achieved his own Brooklands Gold Star for lapping the circuit at over 100 MPH.

During the second world war, RAF pilots discovered a serious problem when attempting to dive a Spitfire or Hurricane aircraft. Because the engines were not fuel injected, the negative g-force caused the carburettors to flood, causing the engine to stall.

Tilly Shilling developed the simplest of solutions, a small brass disk with a hole in it, which limited but didn’t prevent fuel flow and so prevented the flooding. It was an immense success and Shilling went on to work on a variety of aeronautically related projects including medium range ballistic missiles and the effect of a wet runway on aeroplane braking.

Tilly Shilling had little time for unnecessary formalities and disliked bureaucracy. She could be terse and lacked the diplomacy required to please her superiors. Often accused of being a “pathfinder for women’s lib” she simply explained that as a woman she rejected any suggestion that she might be inferior to a man in technical and scientific fields. When Tilly and her husband become too old for safe motor racing, they took up rifle shooting at which they both became expert.

Tilly Shilling is one in a long list and tradition of outstanding women engineers. However, Caroline Spillane the first female Director General of Engineers Ireland says that today, only 10% of engineers are female and points to the substantial gap in the talent pool that this gender imbalance represents. Spillane suggests that parents, teachers and society in general still have outdated attitudes about women in engineering presenting a real obstacle to changing this stark statistic. It points to a huge gap in the talent pool potential in a year where the CAO say first preferences for engineering are down 5%.

Sloan School of Management at MIT Professor, Susan Silbey says that while women make up a fifth of engineering graduates, 40% of them never actually take up a role in engineering. Silbey’s research of 700 engineering students whose careers were followed over several years’ highlights that much needs to change within the profession and related workplaces. Silbey describes female engineering students being treated in gender stereotypical ways in college by peers and professors when it came to handing out project work, guess who got the routine managerial and secretarial project jobs!

Sibley further talks about how many workplaces during internships were at best lacking in equality and worst, involving downright sexual harassment. All of this is even before graduation, so when combined with the recent accusations of extensive sexual harassment and discrimination by engineer Susan Fowler, it becomes a little more obvious why women are not being sufficiently attracted to engineering careers.

It seems not that much has changed since Tilly Shilling’s time, I wonder how she might have dealt with such unnecessary challenges today. How many outstanding people like her have we missed due to women not choosing engineering as a career path?

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