Engineering’s hunt for women goes on

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Here’s the good news. The number of women in engineering jobs has risen since 2008. The bad news is that women still make up just 6% of the engineering workforce, according to a study by the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

But in a world of presumed equality, how can this massive gender gap persist in such an important sector of the British economy?

The answer lies in just one word: perception. In other words, the perceived belief among women that the engineering industry just isn’t for them and that male attitudes towards their gender might inhibit their career path.

Of course, there are examples of women making it to the top of the sector, like Prof Anne Dowling, one of the UK’s most senior female engineers and head of engineering at Cambridge University, and also in America, which probably faces similar perceptual problems to the UK. There, the recent appointment of Marillyn A. Hewson as chief executive of the world's largest defence firm, Lockheed Martin, was a tectonic shift in what has been a notoriously male-dominated sector.

So how are the female engineers of the future, here in the UK, to be encouraged to follow in the footsteps of these invaluable role models?

Begin the process early seems to be the answer.  This can be achieved by increasing the awareness of science and technical subjects at school and providing career advice that sheds light on the fantastic opportunities available in engineering.

Of course, the industry must do some navel-gazing of its own if it’s to start connecting with a generation of young women who may not have engineering on their career short list.

The industry has undoubtedly made huge strides away from its old metal bashing image, but there remain unreconstructed male attitudes that are off-putting to women, not least in areas such as the career impact of maternity leave or the unstated belief that there’s no point in employing young women when they will just go off to start a family.

However, these are issues that other industries such as finance and retail deal with the whole time, so it doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility that engineering could tackle them too.

If engineering companies don’t start taking such challenges on board they will be putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of highly competent, valuable could-be engineers, while still bemoaning the fact that they can’t get the engineers they need.

Fortunately, with the establishment of female-focused engineering organisations like Women in Science and Technology, The Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) campaign, or awards like Young Woman Engineer of the Year, there are signs that the industry is beginning to get to grips with the issue.

With skill shortages likely to remain a problem for some time, the more that can be done to bring women into the profession faster, the better off the country will be.

During the recent recession and downturn, UK employment levels have thankfully remained resilient, but as we move into a new phase of economic recovery, minds will turn to where the new jobs are to come from that will propel UK PLC forward.

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