We have come a long way as a society in the past few decades towards gender equality. Many professions which were once overwhelmingly the preserve of men have now become far more diverse. However, we still associate engineering with men, and this is strongly borne out in reality. Research shows that only 6-9% of engineers in the UK are women. This compares very unfavourably to other countries in Europe, where, despite still being a male-dominated profession, the percentage of female engineers is 18% in Spain, 20% in Italy and 26% in Sweden. In fact, within the European Union, the UK ranks bottom in terms of its ratio of female to male engineers.
The causes for this are complex, it is not simply a case of engineering firms not hiring women, although employers can do more to attract women to their workforces. There also needs to be change in the education system and a deep-rooted cultural transformation, starting with the way parents bring up girls at home.
What can be done?
Part of the problem lies with how traditional gender roles are reinforced in society from a very early age. While boys are given build-it-yourself toys, like Lego and Meccano, and encouraged to play with and develop an interest in toy cars, aeroplanes and so on, girls are often given dolls, skipping ropes and toys relating to hair, makeup, cooking and childcare, all of which are targeted exclusively at females. This reinforces gender roles and discourages the kind of interests and skills from developing which are necessary for a career in engineering. If parents were more gender neutral when choosing which toys their daughters played with, among other things, they could grow up with a markedly different mindset from an early age.
Despite the fact that girls have been equally successful if not better than boys at GCSE physics, science and maths over the last 25 years, only a fifth of students taking physics to A-level have been girls. In 2011-12, according to Unionlearn, women represented just 4% of apprenticeship starts in engineering, but over 90% in hairdressing. Once girls have a choice in academic subjects and start down the career path, many avoid science subjects. This displays a lack of desire rather than ability. If as a society we are not raising our girls to dream about a career in engineering and we are perpetuating its stereotype as a male profession, there will never be more female engineers; by this stage there is little universities and companies can do to funnel more women into employment.
The role of schools
While this is partly a cultural problem, schools must also ensure that their career advice doesn’t play up to gender stereotypes. Teachers must instil the confidence in girls to pursue maths and science to A-level if they show an aptitude. Schools must impress upon girls the benefits that a career in engineering can bring; as well as being a profession in high demand, engineers receive salaries much better than the national average, high levels of job satisfaction, opportunities for travel and the chance to make a real and lasting impression on the world. It’s engineers which will use rapidly developing technology to solve the great issues of our time, protecting us from rising sea-levels and extreme weather, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, helping cities deal with burgeoning populations and so much more.
Higher education and beyond
Universities and engineering firms also have a part to play. Universities can offer outreach programmes to schools to encourage girls to pursue science and maths A-Levels so that by the time they have finished college studies they’re able to apply to engineering degrees. At the same time, they can encourage prospective students by offering engineering scholarships and bursaries aimed specifically at women. In 2013, Brunel University announced a Master’s scholarship scheme for female engineering graduates. While not addressing the problem of too few women studying engineering in the first place, this sets a good precedent, and does address the problem that half of the women who do study engineering do not go on to jobs in the field.
The industry can also do more, in terms of outreach to young people and in recruiting and retaining the women who are already available. Engineering firms need to do more to tackle the issue of maternity leave becoming a career block, and support women to return to the workplace afterwards. Overall company culture in such a male dominated industry can prove intimidating, and businesses would be wise to speak to their current female employees, as well as those who have moved on. They need to find out what women find challenging about working in the industry and, in the latter case, why they left. Companies can also encourage women to apply for their jobs with a commitment to not having an all-male board, demonstrating that there is no glass ceiling to stop women from progressing in their careers.
Increasing the number of female engineers in the UK will be a long and difficult process, but one that is very important. A more diverse workforce means a greater spectrum of ideas and viewpoints, and enables new approaches to problem solving. However, getting more women into engineering would also go a long way towards addressing the overall shortage of qualified engineers in the UK, as engineering firms are currently missing out on the vast majority of half the UK’s workforce.
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