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Women in Space: Mechanical Engineering on the Final Frontier


More often than not, young people assume that engineering is better suited to men, than it is to women. The idea of getting dirty with oil and machine grease isn’t exactly an appealing one, and probably doesn’t tick everyone’s boxes when it comes to career aspirations.

This stereotype has given weight to the assumption that it’s a male-only profession – statistics show that the UK has the lowest percentage of female mechanical engineers in Europe! (Source).

The main reason British girls don’t join engineering is a lack of understanding of what the fields are and a lack of popular role models. British women who have been very successful in a number of different engineering fields, including mechanical engineering, just haven’t been publicised in the same way as men have. The engineering industry is full of women doing extraordinary things every day, and they’ve been doing extraordinary things for many years, contributing countless innovations and making breakthroughs in technology.

The aim of this article is to break that stereotype – the one where men are the only ones suitable for careers in mechanical engineering or advanced manufacturing.

So, which British female engineer can we draw inspiration from?

Meet Dr. Helen Sharman, the first British woman in space.

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In 1991, Sharman flew to the Russian Mir Space Station that rotated at 250 milesper hour around the world. Those eight days in space broke the barrier for British women and proved that gender issues are only in people’s mind. She travelled aboard a Soyuz rocket along with two Russian cosmonauts and conducted various scientific experiments as a part of the mission. 

Dr. Helen Sharman was born in Sheffield and received a B.Sc in Chemistry in 1984 from University of Sheffield and a PhD from Birbeck, University of London. She worked as an engineer in the General Electric Company and later worked as a Chemist for Mars Incorporated. In 1989, there was a radio advertisement for the position of astronaut, and Sharman applied along with 13,000 others and was selected after rigorous tests on her scientific, educational and aerospace background. Finally the mission launched on 18th May, 1991, and Sharman performed various medical and agricultural tasks.

Sharman was only 27 years old when she became an astronaut and she was the fifth youngest to ever fly to space. Her extraordinary achievement has inspired thousands of girls around the world to follow their dreams. In order to encourage youth to follow in her footsteps, she now works as a specialist in science education.
She is an epitome of success and a strong women that should encourage you to join engineering. Helen’s life shows that there are no gender barriers if you are motivated.

Being a mechanical engineer and astronaut can have lots of benefits – you get to work on things that benefit humanity and carve a career that you can be proud of! A mechanical engineer can make lots of contributions as you can design and operate some of the most advanced systems known to mankind. You can be at the forefront of human exploration and ingenuity. The only thing you need is ambition and the desire to work hard to make it a success.

So, if you think you’ve got what it takes to become a mechanical engineer and go up to space as well, ask your school careers advisor about mechanical engineering jobs, and search for mechanical engineering degrees at the hundreds of universities across the country.

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