Women must help engineer a better economy

Dr Nathalie Renevier discusses why so few women choose a career in engineering, and how we can tackle the gender imbalance

Women are still dramatically underrepresented in industries such as engineering, manufacturing and construction, despite the government spending millions on initiatives to widen female participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects.

Women account for just 7% of engineering professionals in the UK and according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency only 15.5% of graduates from first degree courses in engineering and technology courses in 2012-13 were women.

This underrepresentation presents a real threat to the UK’s economy.

Engineering plays a vital role in maintaining the UK’s competitive edge globally and is a crucial factor in the country’s recovery. However, it’s predicted that we will need 87,000 graduate-level engineers every year between now and 2020 and currently the higher education system is producing only 46,000 engineering graduates, the majority of whom are male.

In addition, engineering is an industry that’s evolving fast and many of the jobs and specialisms which will be required in 20 years’ time do not even exist yet. Interestingly, the UK has the lowest number of women practising as engineers in Europe and while this is undoubtedly disappointing, it indicates it is a cultural and sociological issue, rather than a physiological one.

At the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), we are committed to seeing our percentage of female engineering graduates rise. However, the foundations must be laid much earlier than that, and we find that many young people have already made up their minds about a career in engineering long before they reach University age. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the age of 16 is a critical point where women are lost to a career in engineering.

Schools and colleges should be doing more to make engineering careers more relatable to young girls. We need to pique girls’ interests in engineering at primary school level and sustain it right through education. Subjects like science and technology can be linked with the real engineering world from an early age, and the earlier we introduce the industry to women the more relatable it becomes.

A poor understanding of the engineering industry has also been cited as one of the reasons behind the gender imbalance, as well as the perception of a career in engineering as being a ‘male’ career pathway. There is certainly a perception that a career in engineering is dirty or unglamorous and the IPPR states that careers guidance does not do enough to counter the view that careers in engineering are ‘for boys’.

Schools need to make girls aware of the multitude of disciplines across the industry, such as textiles and 3D conceptualisation, which are often more appealing to females. We should also tackle out-dated stereotypes head on – there’s scope for engineering businesses to open their doors to schoolchildren so pupils can see for themselves what a day in the industry involves. We need to be showcasing local success stories too; the North West, for example, was a cradle for the industrial revolution and is missing a trick to engage.

UCLan engages with schoolchildren though our Young Scientist Centre (YSC), a state-of-the-art lab in partnership with Royal Institution (Ri). The centre runs interactive workshops for children with the aim to expose children to the wide range of career options involving science and engineering.

Workshops include a session where children learn to programme Lego robots to navigate around a giant Mars landscape, and another sees children use a 3D printer to complete different engineering challenges. Through the YSC and initiatives like it we can inspire and engage the scientists and engineers of the future by showing them the different and creative options available and give them a chance to be real engineers for the day.

However, initiatives like this alone are not enough, and statistics from the Institute of Physics have identified that better teacher training and long-term partnerships between universities and colleges are the most efficient way to increase intake in engineering, and in particular female engineers.

The UK has a long way to go to correct gender imbalance but if industry, universities, schools and colleges can work together with a common goal we can break down unhelpful stereotypes, attract talented women into engineering and fix the talent pipeline.

Ultimately, we need to start early to attract girls into the physical and formal sciences at school and into physics, engineering and technology degrees at University.

There is a nationwide responsibility to focus talent pathways, beginning in education and ending in industry.

Dr Nathalie Renevier is a senior lecturer in tribotechnology (coatings) and course leader for undergraduate maintenance engineering courses at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan)

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