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Changing the gender imbalance in engineering

Natalie Tyler, Redline’s head of R&D and engineering


According to Engineering UK, 47% of the UK workforce are women, yet they represent only 12% of employed engineers against a total of 6.1m engineering jobs in the UK. Engineering is vital for the UK economy, figures show that the industry contributes 26% of the UK’s GDP, that’s more than the financial, insurance and retail sectors combined. This disproportion of women within engineering can be traced back to school where fewer girls study STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and maths. Many in the industry are already working to introduce engineering to girls at a young age, with experts such as Ana Rodriguez Lizana visiting schools to tell girls how proud she is to be an electrical engineer and how much she loves her job. Electrical engineer, Rodriguez Lizana, governs the largest offshore wind farm in Europe – the East Anglia ONE project. Sadly, she says, “Girls in the UK don’t see engineering as an opportunity.” So, we need to consider how we can use our influence to encourage more young women to take more of an interest in engineering and show them it’s an exciting and fulfilling career path.


Why girls are less interested in STEM subjects?


Children are curious by nature but by a certain age, begin to focus on interests in favourite subjects such as music, sports or art. Unfortunately, it seems that girls tend to shy away from STEM subjects, which has caused a drop in the number studying it at A-level. Among girls aged 11-14, almost half (46.4%) would consider a career in engineering, compared with 70.3% of boys. But this drops to 25.4% of girls aged 16-18, compared with 51.9% of boys. At A-level, girls make up just 22% of physics students. Yet in these examinations, girls seem to excel, with more girls achieving an A*-C grade in most STEM subjects than boys. Therefore, the disparity between the number of boys and girls studying STEM subjects is clearly not a case of competency.


Research has shown that stereotypes are one of the key factors for girls taking less interest in these subjects. The Institution of Engineering and Technology found that a very clear image exists for engineers with 44% of children believing that engineers wear a hard hat, and even more alarmingly 67% thinking an engineer is male. This male-dominated idea of the ‘typical engineer’ is preventing girls from imagining themselves in the profession as they believe they’re not suited to the role or won’t be accepted in high-tech and engineering industries.


Why they should be interested?


Britain suffers from an acute shortage of engineers – 1.8 million new engineers and technicians are needed by 2025. As an industry we need to encourage more girls to see engineering and technology jobs as not only a viable career option, but something exciting to aspire to, whilst encouraging diversity in industry so we can finally put a stop to the perpetuating stereotypes. Unfortunately,  campaigns in the UK over the last 30 years have failed to increase the number of women pursuing an engineering career and this is seriously hindering the industry’s ability to innovate because of the loss of potential talent.


The skills shortage in engineering is another reason we must act now to promote engineering – a recent Engineering UK report revealed that 69,000 engineers are needed to enter the job market every year to meet the rising demand in the sector, whereas the actual entrance rate is 46,000.


There are many aspects embedded in our culture saying engineering isn’t for girls, and people still think of engineers as the men who fix your car or a washing machine, not the people at the forefront of designing creative solutions to the world’s problems.


Those messages often dissuade girls from studying subjects required for engineering careers.  Just as the industry benefits from women employees, women can reap serious benefits from working in the engineering and high-technology sector. The work requires specialist knowledge to tackle problems and gives girls a chance to become an expert in their field. They can study a more general branch of engineering – such as electronics, electrical, chemical or mechanical – and then train in a more focused area like software engineering or process engineering. We must show young girls that engineering is a profession with unlimited possibilities, utilising a cross-section of key skills such as design, innovation, and problem solving.


How we can inspire more girls to consider engineering?


Spark their interest from a young age


We must introduce the idea of being an engineer to girls from a young age and a great way to do this is reading them books like Andrea Beaty’s Rosie Revere. Rosie is a girl who dreams of becoming an engineer, she is someone who young girls can relate to and build their own dream of a job in engineering. It’s important that we support girls in their ambition of becoming an engineer so they can grow up to be inquisitive and feel inspired.


Re-label as STEAM


Professor Klopfer, a director of an MIT University teaching programme, proposes relabelling this branch of education as STEAM to include the arts. Klopfer argues this forces the area of education to be more inclusive and encourages interdisciplinary learning.


The STEM label can intimidate and focus too much attention on science and maths setting the impression that students must be Mensa smart and have a strong knowledge of all of these subjects. It’s especially important to tackle this problem since only 33% of girls thought a STEM subject was their best, compared to 60% of boys.


Therefore, teachers and parents should highlight that engineering is also focused around a creative, problem-solving mind-set, especially if a child has shown an aptitude for Design & Technology or core STEM subjects. To drive this goal of inclusivity we must also focus on the softer skills, such as teamwork and attention to detail, which are also vital attributes for an engineering career.


Celebrating women in STEM


It’s our duty to ensure young women have role models who they can look up to and can inspire them. The Women’s Engineering Society brings awareness to the brilliant work that women do for the industry and they are celebrated regularly through awards such as The Top 50 Women in Engineering 2019. We must also build the confidence of young girls and empower them, which is why the Society of Women Engineers established the community – SWENext – for the next generation of female engineers. Organisations like these help girls to imagine themselves working in the engineering industry as it shows them successful women who they can relate to and aspire to be like.


Demonstrate the positive impact of an engineering career


Girls, and boys, are more attracted to STEM careers when they’re shown the positive impact that they can make to others' lives. To do so Dr Yalow, a Nobel Laureate, urges us to remind girls of this: “We need brilliant scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technologists to address the problems our planet faces and to envision and create a better future.”


Pursuing a career in technology and electronic engineering can present opportunities in a range of sectors, including aerospace, automotive, energy, IT and telecommunications. As educators and parents, we must show girls how they can help others in an engineering job and contribute to global efforts, such as improving environmental sustainability.


Engineering is often overlooked as a career for girls to aspire to, brushed aside as being too male-dominated or only for mechanics and scientists. However, with the prospect of making a genuine difference in the world, its potential should be promoted by parents, teachers, and career advisors alike. It’s our responsibility to showcase the industry and engage with girls of all ages in the hopes of increasing the number of women in engineering roles.


Getting more women into engineering roles will not only benefit the engineering sector, the UK economy as a whole stands to benefit. A report by management consultancy firm McKinsey, estimates that the UK economy will benefit by more than £150 billion pounds if women can be encouraged into more productive roles such as those in science and engineering.


Though not easy, encouraging young women to consider engineering is necessary. With demand for talented, qualified engineers far outstripping supply and Brexit likely to make it more challenging to attract quality foreign students, encouraging more women into the profession is more vital now than ever before.


Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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