In honor of Women in Engineering Day, we caught up with Emma Crichton, Head of Engineering at our pro-bono client, Engineers Without Borders UK. Emma is a chartered civil engineer with six years of experience in the water industry in Scotland. She has worked on a variety of projects and has consistently believed in the importance of collaboration, impactful partnerships and the role engineering has to play in bettering our society. As Head of Engineering at Engineers Without Borders UK she is responsible for driving forward their mission; leading their work to put global responsibility at the heart of engineering.
Tell us a bit about your journey towards becoming an engineer
When I was at school, I really wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to be useful to society; my mum was a teacher and I always admired people in caring professions. I even did some work experience as a nurse but realized very quickly that it wasn’t for me.
In the end, I saw a poster near the end of my time at school that showed all the careers you could do if you studied engineering. I was good at maths and drawn to creative subjects like art so it felt like a good fit whilst giving me the flexibility to make my mind up later on – a well-regarded degree that would provide the tools to make a positive difference in some way. It felt like a good choice for buying time if you’re not entirely sure about what you want to do – engineers can go on to teach, specialize or go into a lot of other related fields.
However, in my head, engineering was closer to architecture, so it was a shock to be thrown into predominantly theory-heavy modules in my first year at Bristol University. I came very close to quitting in the first term, as I felt the level of real-world application was missing. I couldn’t see how all of this connected to making a meaningful difference. Fortunately, after sticking with it, I was able to move into design-based projects and modules where an emphasis on systems thinking started to draw on my understanding of the sector as an instrument for change. I also co-founded a Bristol branch of Robogals, going into schools in less privileged areas of the city to introduce coding and robotics.
I had another wobble after my internship when practicing engineers warned me off the profession and gave the impression that it was really dull and rigid. I was lucky enough to have Professor Sally Heslop, an Engineers Without Borders UK Trustee (at the time) as a lecturer and, on returning to Bristol, she encouraged me to get more involved in the university Chapter and pursue my vision of engineering.
According to the Engineering UK report 2018, 46.4% of girls 11-14 would consider a career in engineering, by 16-18 that has dropped to 25.4% What do you think could be done to keep girls engaged in engineering to a higher level?
I was really surprised by the lack of women on my course. Out of 100 civil engineers, 20 were women – the number was even lower when I sat in on mechanical or aerospace engineering lectures.
STEM outreach has improved massively over the past few years with the visibility of engineering as a career option increasing. It’s not just people with an engineer in the family who are aware of the profession anymore.
But, if we look at the bigger picture, we are living in a patriarchal society. Things are changing with each generation but is it happening fast enough? The first female trailblazers in engineering opened doors to others but levels of diversity in engineering have generally stagnated over the past decades – how have we not fixed this problem yet?
I think it has something to do with the way engineering is framed. There is an image issue where technical talent is valued but the creative part is missing. Students, not just girls, who may have the exact talents we need are put off by the heavy logic-focused emphasis, not realizing that so much of the job is about the real-world impact and our interfaces with wider society.
People are looking to work in a career that matches their personal values. Engineering 100% has the capacity to offer that, but it’s not being communicated.
And the truth is, at the start of my career, I wasn’t hearing conversations about the wider impact on work sites or in design offices. There is a disconnect between what the engineering profession thinks it needs and what it actually needs.
How does diversity help the engineering profession at both an innovation and corporate level?
If you want to create things that have effective outcomes for the real world – you need a representation of that world through those who are creating it. A limited group means a limited conversation about what problems we try to solve and how we do it.
It’s great that Women in Engineering Day exists but there is a risk of oversimplifying the issue. Engineering loves simplicity and putting things in a logical process, but we cannot reject complexity if we are to make a genuine difference.
If you don’t view diversity in a holistic and nuanced way, you risk missing out on a variety of voices. For example, I cannot represent all women – as engineers, we must recognize our respective positions of privilege.
That means leaning into what we don’t know and utilizing the knowledge that exists outside ourselves – both in terms of professional and life experience. That’s what makes the commitments in the new Engineers Without Borders UK strategy so essential. We need an inclusive culture in the sector that acknowledges the value of alternative viewpoints.
What role does engineering have to play in improving the lives of women around the world?
We need to discuss the ‘why’ of engineering.
Is it a bunch of vanity projects for the very wealthy? What is the point of engineering if it helps the few whilst negatively impacting others? We are still not meeting the needs of everyone on the planet. So we need to pivot to thinking about what we should be doing and making the most of our most valuable resource as humans – our ability to empathize with others combined with other key skills people have of logic, creativity, making ethical judgements, skepticism, as these are key to our ability to innovate solutions to seemingly impossible problems.
At Engineers Without Borders UK, I’ve seen this pivot happen at an individual level to improve the lives of people, by making them active participants in the process of design, rather than passive ‘users’. For instance, Azuko was born after founder Jo Ashbridge became involved with our movement. AzuKo was created to challenge traditional perceptions about architecture, how we value communities in the design process, and how we value lived experience. This empathetic approach needs to be embedded more widely, and adopted broadly across engineering, as part of our ethical commitment to society. But how?
Law firms often have resource allocation for pro-bono cases. Doctors take an oath that explicitly outlines their ethical responsibilities. But when engineers are chartered, is our ability to practice ethical engineering assessed? Or is it just a tick box exercise?
Engineering is made up of people, so are companies. I believe in the ability of people to act with empathy – that is why we are building a movement to connect people to enact genuine change for women and all the people of the planet.
The theme for this years’ Women in Engineering Day is #EngineeringHeroes. Who are the women in STEM that inspire you?
I have to also mention the people within our movement, but there are too many to list by name! There are many, many incredible women in our movement, and some represented in our Change Makers case studies.
I’ve also had the privilege and opportunity to help judge the WE50 this year – what an impressive group of women in STEM.
On a personal note, my mum Elizabeth Crichton is a maths teacher (now retired). Her patience and caring nature has always inspired me.