Women in Engineering: Agricultural Engineering

Engineering

To celebrate National Women in Engineering Day on June 23rd we’re exploring some of the niches within engineering, as well as the skilled women working within them.

In the fifth of our blog posts supporting the #RaisingProfiles sub-theme, we’re investigating the current status of women in agricultural engineering and examining what the future might hold for them in this industry.

What is agricultural engineering?

The ultimate aim of the sector is to find new ways to ensure that farming becomes safer and more environmentally sustainable. With an ever-growing population and an increasing strain on the natural resources we use to feed ourselves, its importance is clear and it can always make use of more skilled, knowledgeable engineers. It’s important, therefore, to encourage as many women as possible to become engineers in this field.

Agricultural engineering encompasses a wide range of areas, including:

  • The design of agricultural machinery and equipment
  • Water management and conservation with regard to irrigation
  • Soil management and conservation
  • Surveying and land profiling
  • Bioresource engineering

Two agricultural engineers may therefore have very different focuses with regard to their work. Because of the varying levels of maths, science and mechanical knowledge that are required for different areas, agricultural engineers are required to obtain formal qualifications – in the UK this will mean (at minimum) a foundation degree, HND or degree in an engineering subject.

The current status of women in agricultural engineering

As in other forms of engineering, agricultural engineering is generally thought of as a male-dominated profession. The same problems affect male-to-female ratios here that affect male-to-female ratios in other types of engineering. Girls are less likely to focus on maths and science-based subjects at school and university, and may consider engineering and similar careers to be “boy’s clubs” in which they would be out of place or not taken seriously.

As it stands, women are more likely to be found in farming than in engineering as far as agricultural work is concerned, and this may only occur because their families own a farm or they have a similarly rural-based background. The UK government has realised that this is a concern, with Environment Secretary Liz Truss recently meeting with female representatives from the farming industry to mark International Women’s Day. A roundtable discussion looked at how to encourage more female students and women to consider farming and, by extension, other agriculture-based jobs as serious career choices.

Women in agricultural engineering

Harriet Strong

Harriet Strong studied water problems, including the control of flood waters and water storage, due to the need for proper irrigation on her farm. Her invention, which was patented in 1887, consisted of a series of dams constructed in a valley or canyon so that, when the water filled the lower dam, it extended up to a certain height upon the lower face of the second dam and acted as a brace and support for the dam above it. As a result, large parts of California were successfully irrigated and helped transform it into the agricultural powerhouse it became known as in subsequent years.

Susana Chaves Villalobo

Susana Chaves Villalobos works as an agricultural engineer in Costa Rica. She founded IBS Soluciones Verdes, which helps small-scale farmers with production strategies, communication, certification, and marketing. She also runs the Yo Como Verde (I Eat Green) campaign, which promotes healthy eating in Costa Rica. In her spare time, she trains and certifies people in organic farm production.

Dorota Haman

Dorota Haman is chair of the University of Florida’s Agricultural and Biological Engineering department. As a professor in the department, she specialises in plant-water relationships and irrigation water management. In addition to her research she maintains an interest in irrigation technology throughout developing countries – while much of her work is academic, she has been in the field in South America, Central America and Africa, where she developed and taught irrigation courses.

The future for women in agricultural engineering

While there may currently be fewer female agricultural engineers than we might have hoped for, there are signs of improvement. Recent figures released by universities and colleges indicate a rise in the number of female students taking agricultural courses. The Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester has seen a 44% increase of female students, while Harper Adams University in Shropshire has seen the number of female students studying agriculture double in the last five years.

In order to really make a difference, though, change has to be implemented at an earlier stage in the education process – this involves ensuring that more girls become interested in maths and science at school. Additionally, those considering agricultural engineering as a career should be made aware of the excellent income and professional development opportunities in the field and the variation in work that the position offers. Until both of these things happen, agricultural engineering may always be a subdivision of engineering that struggles to break down its traditional male dominance.