Women Engineers

How A Sheffield Professor Is Boosting Engineering Courses Among Women

Written by Elena Doncheva | Women Engineers | Thursday 12th June 2014 11:40:00 GMT

Interview: Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, director of Women in Engineering at the University of Sheffield, reveals her strategy to attract more female candidates to engineering courses.

Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, director of Women in Engineering at the University of Sheffield

Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, director of Women in Engineering at the University of Sheffield

Female engineers: a topic we often discuss at EngineeringBecause. Although we provide numerous examples of successful female engineers, gender stereotypes can still be considered relevant.

Therefore, we went through the education statistics and strategies to attract more female candidates for engineering courses with Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, director of Women in Engineering at the University of Sheffield, who revealed her approach.

“We were able to identify a few internal problems and have dealt with them, particularly supporting female academic staff to be more assertive and proactive about their careers and practices, which in turn develops stronger role models,” says Prof Elena.

“Externally, however, it is a completely different issue. Our efforts, although valid and correct, do not have the impact we need them to have. Our reach as a university is limited and therefore, whilst we change young people’s minds, it is not enough.”

'Engineering is perceived as a dirty and male oriented discipline'

But her work with Dr Katie Edwards, a biblical studies professor who researches gender and sexuality, drew her to a different conclusion. “The perception of engineering is flawed in this country. Engineering is perceived as a dirty and male oriented discipline," explains Prof Elena, blaming the media's representation and society's view, both of which form the understanding of engineering. 

“As a result, the strategy has evolved, we are still doing what we set out to do but we are also working with the government, the media, industry, other universities and schools to look at how we can communicate – and most importantly – challenge gender preconceptions and biases and the understanding of the discipline,” she adds.

Based on her observations and gender statistics, Prof Elena clarifies: “If you think about the types of engineering courses that are attracting more women, you see a clear trend in what they seem to be looking for: human interaction and caring professions.”

She continues: “But if one were to take this as the starting point, for the time being, you could argue that women want to ‘make a difference’ and the traditional engineering degree doesn’t shout ‘social, human or caring’, which it’s very amusing as there is not a thing that is used in caring professions that has not been engineered in one way or another.”

According to Prof Elena the responsibility to attract more women into engineering is shared. The education system, as well as the media, are the ones who form the perception about this industry, which enables them to provide motivation and support.

Having both engineering and business degrees, she realizes the impact engineering has on people's lives. “As an engineer finding and designing solutions for society’s problems are at the core of the discipline. But in order to do that, we must understand what the problem is, who has got the problem, what are the needs of the ‘customer’ and translate all of this ‘market research’ into a needs analysis or design specification,” she says.

“As an engineer you solve the problem, and then have to ensure you met the criteria, test your solution and implement it. The extension of this is the reach and impact.”

'Whilst we change young people’s minds, it is not enough'

Through the module Make a Change, where a combination of engineering and business skills is required, Prof Elena manages to demonstrate the caring aspect of the profession.

“The true moment of change, of impact, of personal and professional pride was when I saw my students in 2007 for the first time engage in the process with a passion that I had never seen before,” she says.

That year the ‘customer’ was a six-year-old boy called Kieron Norton who was born with quadriplegic cerebral palsy. “Kieron wanted to be able to make a cup of tea or scribble on a piece of paper but due to his disability he couldn’t.” 

“The students were incredibly professional – fiercely determined to find a solution to make Kieron’s life better, and they did it. They came up with ideas and solutions that not only were technically outstanding, they were commercially viable and worked for Kieron and others,” says Prof Elena.

“Since then, every year students have ‘Made a Change’ to many families and organisations. And that is why I love being an engineer and mostly, why I love being a teacher.”

She summed up her motto for a successful career, what has worked for her so far and what has enabled her to become an educator: her true vocation.

“I dream all the time. I then try to make my dreams a reality. I work very hard without compromising my life. I ask for help constantly but always acknowledge the support and recognise people’s efforts,” she adds. “I try to help others as often as I can, with their careers and their lives.”

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