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opinion_TECNUN_2021_07_08_08_Women and Engineering

Women and Engineering

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Diario Vasco

Marta Ormazábal

Assistant Director of Academic Organisation of Tecnun-School of Engineering of the University of Navarra

A few days ago, the International Day of Women in Engineering was celebrated. Numerous educational establishments disseminated the biographies of women who have played a key role in social development, and who I am convinced will awaken vocations and more steam references in future generations. 

More and more companies are demanding technical profiles. A recent study by ADEGI indicated that almost 90% of companies in Gipuzkoa are short of engineers. In fact, the pandemic has brought with it changes in the world of work, in which many sectors and profiles have been affected and the demand for professionals in industries such as healthcare or technology has shot up. 

This reality presents us with two opportunities for professionals in the engineering sector, and also for teachers in Engineering Schools, as in my case, who have the possibility of training young students who are excited about their future. 

The first challenge would be to assume with responsibility that society demands our work. It needs the knowledge of men and women who understand the transformative power of engineering and know how to use it. And of course, to do it together, because diversity and complementarity always enriches. 

The second challenge is to make the social side of engineering more visible so that more and more children, and therefore more young people, opt for it. I think that for a long time we have been wrongly associated with the idea of being in a laboratory in isolation or getting our hands dirty with a machine, without much contact with the outside world and without a direct impact on society. Moreover, this false idea of "loners" affects women even more when considering engineering as an option.  

Covid-19 has taught us a lot in this regard. Think of the pandemic that has changed our lives since it broke out in March last year. Engineering has been present in all the logistical systems of food transport, in the optimisation of work shifts in companies, supermarkets or clinics. We saw numerous cases of engineers in multidisciplinary teams and in collaboration with professionals from different countries developing medical solutions. Engineering is attractive in itself, but we have to know how to tell the story, how to reach schools and families, and I think we are doing that.   

Despite the fact that today the average number of women studying engineering, according to the latest Eurostat study, is less than 30%, we are one of the EU countries with the highest number of female scientists and engineers. Specifically, 49.3%. At Tecnun we have seen an evolution in recent years and we have 40% of female students studying one of our bachelor's or master's degrees.  

Education plays an essential role in this sense, as it is the main lever for social transformation. The real challenge lies in fostering interest in science and technology in the people who children have as references at the earliest ages, who are usually their parents and kindergarten teachers. Engineering comes from ingenuity and what defines us is the ability to translate that idea into a product or a solution. The role of parents and educators is crucial and I would dare say it is from the age of three. This is when they begin to overcome their fears, develop their skills and creativity, and of course, when they are most guided by what their peers are teaching them.  

For the last two years we have been part of the organising committee of Emakumeak Zientzian, an initiative set up thanks to the efforts of various research centres in the city. The aim is to make the work of women scientists visible (a world hitherto mainly dominated by men), as well as to foster a love of careers in science among both boys and girls and young people. To this end, practical science workshops are organised and audiovisual content is generated that schools can then use in their own classes. Women working in science and technology share their experience with younger students so that they can see them as an example to follow. People need a mirror to look up to for optimism, and we have plenty of them.   

I also think that nobody wants or is interested in what they don't know. When we go to schools we see that high school students are curious about engineering, but they don't quite understand what we do. Perhaps they see it as a complicated career, within the reach of the most intelligent and with promising professional opportunities. We recently held an introductory workshop at Tecnun with 165 high school students. They did practical work in laboratories and discovered in teams the different branches of engineering, what differentiates them and what unites them. And all this helped them to break with the false idea that we work alone (or accompanied, at most, by a machine).   

I think that the message we have to convey is the one that Sara Gómez Martín, director of the Women and Engineering Project of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says: "Engineering in past centuries was focused on the machine, but in the 21st century it focuses on people and on improving their quality of life". Let's make strength in its social aspect.