- That North East women were instrumental in founding the world’s first women’s engineering organisation
- About the role of The Common Room in tackling the low numbers of women in UK engineering
- How those working in engineering and technology have the potential to shape the world
The role of the North East has been synonymous with the contribution and progress that women have made in the fields of science and engineering since the turn of the century, when women were major influencers of the industrial progress that came with mining and shipbuilding.
World War I provided the opportunity for these vital contributions to be stepped up, and the capacity provided by the industrial dominance of the North East to manufacture vital war related equipment, combined with the foresight and determination of its influential industrial families, provided the impetus.
Women’s confidence and competence in technical and scientific fields enabled their acceptance, but at the end of the war they were swiftly denied the opportunities to continue in these roles. The introduction of the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act soon prevented them from working in industries in which they had not worked before the war.
Championing the Rights of Women
It was Lady Parsons, wife of the shipbuilder and industrialist Sir Charles Parsons, who spoke up on behalf of these women in her speech at the Victory Meeting in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1919. She said:
“It has a been a strange perversion of women’s sphere – to make them work at producing the implements of war and destruction and to deny them the privilege of fashioning the munitions of peace.”
Later that same year, Lady Parsons and her daughter Rachel Parsons became founder members of the Women’s Engineering Society, the first women’s engineering organisation in the world. This still exists today with the purpose of championing the rights of women to work and succeed as engineers, scientists and leaders.
Another co-founder of the Women’s Engineering Society was local woman Janette Ormsby, wife of the mining engineer Robert Ormsby. These pioneering women of the North East set the direction of travel that women in science and technology have been following for the past 100 years.
The Drive for Equality
Today, of course, much progress has been made towards equality of opportunity for women in science and engineering, but much remains to be done to see women’s contribution match their male counterparts. The UK has one of the lowest percentages of women working in engineering in the world, at less than 12%.
The Common Room has a unique role to play here, with its mix of historical importance and its ambition and vision to shape the future.
One way of inspiring young people is through storytelling, and there are certainly many authentic stories to be told from a local perspective that are captivating for our audiences. We know from experience of outreach activities that young women in particular relate to the personal and the historical narrative, and this is often missing in traditional technical and engineering activities.
Where these can be combined is where the strength lies, and so there is certainly an opportunity for The Common Room to exploit the region’s illustrious past. But, of course, we should not spend too long thinking about what went before.
Engineering today is not the heavy, dirty industry it used to be, and the contrast is important. Today we have so many more stories to tell, about the enormous potential for those working in engineering and technology to shape the world, as well as our local environment.
A Blueprint for Change
The emergence of the UN Sustainable Development Goals gives us the blueprint for a world of affordable and clean energy, sustainable growth, peace and justice, climate action, health and security. This blueprint is one we need ALL of the population to address, not just half of it.
And today the opportunities to do this are available to people sitting anywhere in the world, even in their homes, increased by the digital capabilities that have recently been unleashed and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. We must ensure that all of our young people are inspired to play their part at this crucial moment, as we shape the future with our use of artificial intelligence, robotics, big data and other new technologies.
The fact that young women are so under-represented in these fields is exactly the reason why The Common Room must use its influence and unique position to address this. We need their input and we need their opinions, otherwise not only will they be missing out on these opportunities, but the world will be missing out on their insights.
Collaboration with local engineering and technology organisations to bring new stories to life, to introduce local role models, and to highlight local opportunities will create crucial partnerships for delivering inspiring and compelling content to our next generation.
Finding ways to do this, through the use of history, storytelling, local inspiration, digital engagement, fabulous event space, local trust, collaboration, research partnerships, ambition, and widespread reach are all open to The Common Room, and the incentive and opportunity to succeed is both exciting and enormous.
At a time where the UK is ‘levelling up’ its economy and looking to invest in all regions to ensure equality of opportunity for our next generation, there is so much scope for growth and the equal inclusion of women in this growth agenda is imperative.
The role of The Common Room is integral to this, and its ambition to play a leading role, alongside other local organisations, industries, and institutions offers an exciting opportunity for a truly inspiring and transformative engagement agenda.
Dawn Bonfield MBE is a Past President and former CEO of the Women’s Engineering Society. She is a materials engineer, having worked in the aerospace and automotive industries, and now works as a Visiting Professor of Inclusive Engineering at Aston University. She is founder of International Women in Engineering Day, a global and influential celebration of women in engineering which takes place annually on 23 June. In 2019 she was voted second most influential woman in engineering in the Financial Times / Inclusive Boards Top 100 list, and in 2021 was included in the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Top 20 all-time WISE Award winners.
Dawn is fascinated by the history of women in engineering and manages a social enterprise called Magnificent Women, which undertakes engineering outreach activities amongst other things. Dawn is a Chartered Engineer, a Fellow of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and an Honorary Fellow of the Institution of Structural Engineers. She was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Engineering Degree from Bath University in 2019.