Naomi Climer is the IET's first female president
For the first time in its 144 year history, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) has a woman as its president.
Naomi Climer took over the position at the beginning of this month with aspirations of dispelling the enduring myth that engineering is a male profession and sharing the ‘excitement and fun’ of a career in engineering.
In an interview in January shortly after learning that she would be the next president of the IET, Climer explained that the term lasts only a year, and that although she will have a focus on diversity, there is, realistically, not a great deal of radical change that can be achieved in a single year. She was careful to note that the “onus on presidents [of the IET] is to work closely with predecessors and successors to ensure continuity and commitment to the vision to ‘inform, influence and inspire’”. Naomi admitted that her term “has to be significant”, but added that “I wouldn’t want to give the impression that it is only now that I am a woman president that the IET is going to pick [the topic of women in engineering] up. The IET has been campaigning for diversity in engineering for some time and William [Webb], who is the current president, is very passionate about it. It is an obvious thing for me to do, although I don’t want it to be my sole focus, but it is a moment when we can make sure people are thinking about the diversity agenda”.
"The thing I am particularly passionate about is how to improve the image and status of engineering, especially in the UK," Climer said. "Living in California, engineers are absolute rock stars. I think it has improved a lot in the UK but it doesn't feel quite the same. It doesn't feel like engineering and technology as a career is as prestigious as it ought to be given the range of job opportunities and the sheer diversity of what you can do. If you want to make a difference in the world then engineering and technology is a very good place to be in order to do that."
Britain faces a serious shortfall of engineers
Last week, Naomi told the Observer that Britain is on the precipice of a serious shortfall of engineers, quoting figures that suggest that the country will need to recruit close to two million engineers over the next decade. Decrying the deplorably lack of women in engineering (still only around 6% of the British engineering workforce is female), Climer compared the leaps other professions have made in approaching equal gender division:
“In the past, most professions – including medicine and engineering – were predominately male domains. Today many have been transformed and employ large numbers of women. For example, jobs in medicine are now divided fairly evenly between the sexes. By contrast, engineering has remained stubbornly stuck in the past. Men still hold down 94% of jobs. That is simply not acceptable Indeed, it is harmful. We cannot hope to recruit the numbers of engineers we need in the near future if we are effectively excluding half the population from taking part.”
"If you want to make a difference in the world then engineering and technology is a very good place to be in order to do that."
The IET believes that the worsening skill shortage in the UK STEM sector has at its roots a problem in the way STEM careers are presented to children, and as such is working with Engineering UK on its ambition to get members of the engineering community into every single secondary school in the UK. Climer has lamented the way that choices made at the ages of 14 or 15 could rule people out of engineering or technology careers, and pointed out that reaching the parents of these children “is an incredibly important part of [remedying the problem] too”.
The IET commissioned CHILDWISE to carry out a study earlier this year, involving children between the ages of 9 and 12, as well as their parents, as part of their ‘Engineering a Better World’ campaign (find the reports here). The study found that not only are boys far more likely than girls to enjoy hobbies which could be said to relate to engineering, but also that their parents are far more likely to think their son might be interested in a career as an engineer than their daughter: roughly 28 of the boys’ parents responded that their son could be interested in engineering, compared to around 5 of the girls’ parents.
They study found that a large proportion of both children and parents associated engineering primarily with maintenance and repairs, overlooking the far wider implications of the field, and that many were surprised to find that a career in engineering could lead to working with robotics, drones and computers.
Climer, who was until recently the head of Sony’s Media Cloud Services, thinks that children are being discouraged from professions in engineering by depictions of the field as drab or dirty. “What so many young people don’t realise is that engineering will give you work wherever you want: in the office or out of doors; on your own or as part of a team; working with computers or without them. You could work with food, chemicals, machines, electronics, bridges or railways or design software. It’s an amazing range. Young people need to be made aware of that,” Climer said.
The IET cites one reason parents give for not encouraging their children into engineering: a lack of knowledge themselves. Two thirds of parents surveyed said that they don’t know enough to help their child if asked for information or advice on engineering. This shows the importance of educating not only children on their options, but also their parents.
It may be worth contrasting the UK system with that of the United States, where students can reach the age of 20 without having yet committed themselves to a particular course of study.
Climer explained the Engineering UK scheme to improve the image of engineering in schools: “The idea is that it might be a business or it might be an individual, but every school should have access to someone who understands what an engineering career could mean so they can influence the teachers and hopefully, to come extent, the parents, to catch the children at the right age when they are making choices for life.”
It is also important to have the right role models to inspire young women into STEM. Naomi suggests that younger engineers and scientists are more effective and meaningful in inspiring today’s youth, as they often have more in common with people closer to their own ages. She gives the example of a number of recent winners of the Young Women Engineer of the Year Award who are quite active on social media, working to inspire children, and particularly girls, into engineering fields, doing ‘quite a range of different exciting things across the engineering spectrum’.
When asked what she would consider a success when her year as President was up, Climer said that she would consider her year as president a success if “at the end of the year [she could] feel that the general public as well as policy makers and industry, are seeing engineering in everything, and are more conscious of the role it is playing in everyday life. [She] would like to think that that level of awareness had gone up as a result of [her] year.”