National Women in Engineering Day on 23 June was dedicated to raising the profile of women in the profession and celebrating their achievements. It is no secret that engineering faces a skills shortage, and this could be lessened if more women were recruited.
Thousands of engineering positions go unfilled every year, and only 9% of engineers in the UK are women. Yet more than half of engineering employers don’t have in place any diversity initiatives.
Women’s attitudes were surveyed by the Royal Academy of Engineering for its report Britain’s Got Talented Female Engineers. Three-quarters of the women spoken to said they believed engineering was regarded as a “male career”.
But many believe that the skills shortage could be challenged if the industry became more diversified and inclusive. A diverse workforce within a company strengthens it in all areas, including resilience, capacity to innovate, and improved financial performance. Often, a company’s customers are diverse, so a workforce drawn from a similarly varied pool is more likely to understand their needs. So, for more women to enter engineering, many believe change needs to happen both inside the industry and out.
Zoe Lane, head of built environment at recruitment company Spencer Ogden, says: “More pressing than the need for individual businesses to make themselves alluring to women is the need to make the engineering profession more attractive to women as a whole.
“The UK education system is remarkable in many respects, but it is not without its flaws: a choice made in secondary school – and without the right information – can block off several career paths. By the time engineering seems like an appealing choice, it’s often too late.”
One organisation that is grappling with these issues is the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), which aims to support women in engineering, encourage educational initiatives and work with companies to increase diversity. Dawn Bonfield, chief executive of the society and the founder of National Women in Engineering Day, received an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list for the promotion of diversity in engineering.
Vote of confidence
Bonfield believes that the society’s goal of supporting and inspiring women in engineering has seen some success in recent years. “The industry can’t fill the skills gap through half the population,” she says. “The MBE I received certainly can’t do any harm in promoting gender diversity in engineering, and I think it is great that the promotion of diversity, which I received the award for, is seen as an important issue. It gives me confidence that the work that I and very many other volunteers in our sector do is taken seriously and valued.”
Bonfield explains that there is a general consensus that the main problem of attracting women into the profession lies with the educational system. Schoolgirls don’t fully understand what an engineer is and so do not see engineering as an option.
“One of the main challenges is lack of independent and accessible information on engineering careers and qualifications for 16- to 18-year-olds,” says Bonfield. “This is one thing we hope to be addressing in partnership with others. We do a lot of great work to inspire girls in engineering but we don’t build on this to help them with their career choices when it is really most important in their sixth form.”
Bonfield also believes it is crucial to remove career stereotyping which applies to boys as well as girls and is something that schools and parents need to work on right through the school lives of our young people. “It needs to be tackled at the highest level and is not specific to engineering alone, although this sector is one of the biggest casualties,” she says. “Inclusivity and equality of choice are key.”
Gender diversity in engineering, despite increasing slowly, still has a long way to go, according to Dame Wendy Hall, professor of computer science at the University of Southampton and a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. “I liken the issue of diversity in engineering to making a clearing in the jungle,” she says. “You put a huge amount of effort in and get everyone to work together to clear it and then suddenly you all move off somewhere else and the jungle grows back. It’s too early to say it’s done. It needs constant vigilance and looking at what’s been achieved and what’s the best thing to do next.”
To make a difference in diversity, Hall argues that the industry has to “make a change at root and branch. We have to speak with one voice. We have made progress with groups dedicated to women in engineering but there is a long way to go still until numbers significantly change.”
Philip Greenish, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says the organisation has a responsibility to lead action to address the skills crisis, and that the Diversity Programme is a key component. “Working with many partners in the first phase of the programme has enabled us to put in place a strong platform, and much has been achieved,” he says. “Businesses have targets. It should be no different with diversity.”
Greenish believes the industry cannot afford to be complacent about gender diversity. “That 9% of engineers are women is a start but it’s a really lousy figure by anyone’s standards,” he says.
Greenish explains that companies that have more diverse boards and executive teams are more successful in profitability. He says: “Education on the need for gender diversity in the industry is vital, and education starts right from the beginning with parents and teachers. We have to explain to them the benefits of working in the engineering environment for this to make a difference. We need a profession that is inclusive, and one of the key motivators for under-represented groups is seeing them in the profession.”
As children and young adults come to choose the subjects they will study, the main influences are often cited as schools and teachers. But those with the most influence are actually the parents. Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, professor of enterprise and engineering education at the University of Sheffield, believes that more needs to be done to educate parents, and only then will youngsters feel inspired to take up engineering. “I think a lot has been done to encourage young girls to take up sciences at an early age. But by the time they are encouraged it’s too late.
“Mum and dad are the first influences of what we perceive to be a boy’s job or a girl’s job – what it means to be a girl and what it means to be a boy. Mum and dad tend to not know what an engineer or scientist is. What we need to do is train mum and dad, so that they can train the little ones.”
Anne Dixon from Innovate UK says that the country needs to be able to draw on all its engineering talent – and ensure that the British engineers of the future will make just as much of an impact as their iconic predecessors. “Positive role models that young people can relate to are key, which is why we’re always on the look-out for inspiring stories from technicians and engineers. The opportunity to see engineering in action is also vital, so a strategic approach to schools’ engagement and an inclusive work experience policy are really important for diversity.”
Despite years of debating the problem, there is still a great deal to be done by employers, schools and others. Bonfield says: “It’s like a hurdles race, with the end of the race being a career in engineering. The first hurdle is stereotyping at school and gender-stereotyped toys. Getting through university unscathed is another hurdle, then there is the maternity/career-break hurdle.
“When people fall at these hurdles, there are fewer who make it to the end of the race.
“The only way you can stop that is to have so many people crowding on to the start line, and running at the first hurdle, that you will start knocking the hurdles down. At the moment all we are doing is lowering the hurdles, not knocking them down – we’re just making the best of the situation.”