Eureka! Margaret Beckett

30th January 1998 at 00:00
Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, has Cabinet responsibility for science. Fortunately, she was once an engineer.

As someone with a background in science and engineering, I am delighted to speak for science at the Cabinet table. Before the election, we promised to strengthen the United Kingdom's science base, use science and technology to improve quality of life and regenerate our economy by bringing new ideas and innovations to the market. We also vowed to end the bias against science in our culture.

I greatly regret that this bias persists. My first career choice was engineering. I wanted a job that would be creative, intellectually challenging and rewarding. It fulfilled all my aspirations, but more important at the time, it was also great fun.

As an engineering apprentice, the first years of my career were spent in a male-dominated environment. The ratio of men to women at Associated Electrical Industries in Manchester was about 200 to 1. This created no real problems - I suppose I adapted to the almost exclusively masculine environment. It was actually a friendly and pleasant world. We worked in close-knit teams, with a strong sense of camaraderie. Our successes were team achievements and we enjoyed them together.

The only problem for me was getting used to the fact that, being a woman, I was different and consequently people always noticed me. If I walked into a lecture theatre, there might be 200 people looking at me because I was the only woman in the room. Who should I look at when the entire room was looking at me? I avoided the problem by looking down, so that is what I inadvertently did. Even now I have difficulty making eye contact when I enter a meeting room.

It is a tremendous shame that the merits of careers in science or engineering are not more widely recognised. We need to encourage more talented young people into these areas, particularly women, who are still grossly under-represented in all but biological and social sciences. But we will only do this when young people see science and engineering as areas offering high status, well-paid jobs. Our society must be persuaded to respect those who enter science or engineering.

We need to convince young people that these jobs are not necessarily poorly paid. A recent comparison of salaries 10 years after graduation showed that engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians and physicists were getting better salaries than all but lawyers, dentists and economists.And, surprisingly, female mechanical and electrical engineering graduates seemed to be faring better than their peers in any other discipline. This should be of use to my department's unit on Women into Science, Engineering and Technology, which aims to encourage more females to study and work in these areas.

My memories of my first career are happy ones. I hope more young people will be inspired to pursue careers in science. Their contributions are vital to Britain's future competitiveness.

"Eureka!: the Science Column" appears every fortnight

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