Engineering for women - making a tangible difference to people’s lives:
Engineering is everywhere around us. It enables the gadgets we use to work, the bridges and buildings we stand in and to stand up rather that fall down. It saves lives – think about incubators for babies in intensive care units, resuscitation kits when someone has a heart attack. Engineering is not just about fast cars and muddy construction sites. When your heating goes on as you set it to or your kettle boils to create a hot drink, creating warmth and comfort, an engineer’s thought, problem solving and hard work has enabled this to happen.
Dr Dorte Rich Jorgensen is a sustainability expert and the former Atkins Infrastructure teams’ sustainability manager for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Park Project.
“I enjoy understanding about how things work and engineering is perfect for that. I also love that there is often a connection between the engineering solution we provide, people and the environment, for example in building design ensuring comfort and environmentally friendly solutions. Engineering offers fantastic opportunities to make a positive difference e.g. the Olympic Park.” Dr Dorte Rich Jorgensen.
How significant is engineering to the UK economy?
The UK engineering sector is about 20% of GDP and the economy and employs about 4.5 million people.
The UK needs to double the number of recruits into engineering to meet demand. Engineering companies are projected to have 2.74 million job openings from 2010 – 2020, 1.86 million of which will need engineering skills. Of these, approximately 87,000 per year will require people with a degree (including foundation, undergraduate and postgraduate) qualifications. Currently the UK produces only 46,000 engineering graduates each year, so this is a significant shortfall which would need to be filled by increasing the number in the UK or sourcing from other countries. There will also be demand for around 69,000 people qualified at advanced apprenticeship or equivalent level each year, yet only around 27,000 UK apprentices a year currently qualify at the appropriate level. Attracting and keeping more female engineers is one natural solution to address this skills shortfall and positively impact the economy. Attracting and retaining more women in engineering is multifaceted; education, image, communication, support and diversity and inclusion.
What is it like working in engineering?
GTI Media’s Target Jobs Engineering sector student and recent graduate survey (male and female), published August 2013, shows that the experience of new engineers working in engineering was; responsibility and opportunity at an early stage of their career, variety of work, opportunities to travel around the country and job/career opportunities worldwide. They also observed the cyclical nature of the industry and generally had high levels of job satisfaction.
“Women are drawn to fields where the social relevance is high.” C Dian Matt, Executive director, Women in Engineering proactive network.
Is engineering a male preserve?
The UK has the lowest number of female engineering professionals in EU countries, only 7% compared with approximately 25% in Sweden and 30% in Latvia. The UK also has one of the lowest conversion rates of women qualified in science, engineering and technology (SET) progressing into SET careers.
Asian countries have a better record of producing female engineers. In China 40% of engineers are female and the number of female engineering graduates in India has doubled in recent years.
When people think about engineering, they often think about hard hats, iron girders, cranes and construction sites, but this is only part of what engineering is and does.
GTI Media’s report “Is the shortage of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) women graduates keeping you awake at night?” published July 2013 explores the views, career aspirations and concerns of female undergraduates studying STEM degrees.
Concerns about working in engineering from women were career progression and the perceived status of technical jobs and employers. Other concerns were mobility and relocation every few years, achieving a healthy work life balance should they start a family and the impact of this on their job security and the availability of further training and qualifications.
Qualifications to become an engineer
Science and maths are essential subjects to choose at school to qualify for engineering courses at university. Girls have traditionally been predisposed to and historically encouraged to study arts subjects, but data shows that girls are equally competent at them as boys and being in a single sex school enhances their performance in them.
Rachel Lloyd studied engineering at Sheffield University.
“The general reaction is still surprise when I tell people what I do and I am constantly asked if I am one of the only girls on my course; there’s about 20% girls on my course.”
“There is still the belief that engineering is a ‘male’ subject. For those girls that do well in Maths and science, there needs to be more guidance into what professions and degrees they could do.”
Why is engineering not appealing to women?
Research by Intel showed that teenage girls were more likely to consider a career in engineering when it was positioned as fixing global problems e.g. bringing water solutions to communities in Africa.
There is a misperception that engineering involved tedious or manual labour.
Research by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC), now called WISET in 2010 explores teacher’s attitudes, career information and advice, and women working in science, engineering and technology. Various themes emerged.
Girls are ruling themselves out of a career in engineering by age 14. This is a key priority to address to create a sustainable increase in the number of female engineers.
In the UK, compared with other EU countries, children start compulsory school the earliest, spend the longest time in compulsory education, have one of the highest proficiency levels, yet report one of the lowest levels of enjoyment in science, with girls’ enjoyment levels significantly lower than boys. Girls lack confidence despite outperforming most subjects compared to boys.
Female engineers like to see a clear career path ahead and opportunities for advancement. This reduced their level of dissatisfaction and likelihood to leave the sector. Clear roles that are defined with clear work boundaries also motivate women. The enjoyment of subjects is as significant as academic attainment in terms of a pupil’s likelihood to pursue a subject further. Careers information is still reinforcing gender stereotypes
The communication challenge
Perhaps our society focuses too much on ‘instant gratification’ and has cultivated a view, especially amongst the younger generation that ‘hard things aren’t worthwhile’ when actually mastering difficult challenges gives a great sense of achievement and is very rewarding.
"Careful use of language is important to change perceptions and avoid stereotypes. I
have made a conscious choice/effort to use 'they' not 'he' and 'she' and 'person' instead of 'him' and her'. This one change consistently used across the industry would change attitudes of engineering as a male preserve over time.”
Robert Care, Chair UK Middle East Africa (UKMEA), Arup
Designing and building a bridge or innovative new medical machinery that diagnoses a hard to spot medical condition or saves lives is an amazing legacy to leave.
Elevating the status of an engineer compared with other career choices could also attract and retain more professionals.
“Unlike the title ‘Doctor’, ‘engineer’ isn’t protected only for use by those who have spent many years in their life studying.”
The UK needs more skilled engineers. Attracting and retaining more female engineers is a smart way to address this and one that support GDP.
Increasing the number of women attracted to and staying in engineering is a complex multifaceted challenge. Teachers, parents, careers advisors, girls and employers are all target audiences. An integrated approach is required and perhaps fresh thinking and thinking outside the box. Language is important to avoid perpetrating stereotypes.
Schooling Broadening the number of compulsory subjects to include science subjects studied at age 14-18 and designing lessons to make them more enjoyable and appealing to girls could make a difference. Making the curriculum more enjoyable and framing the topics in ways that females find motivating, especially at the crucial decision making years about subjects – making a difference to people’s lives being communicated in an emotive way rather than just about machinery and buildings.
Careers support informed by insights about gender will help unconscious bias to be addressed at all levels. Increasing the number of female engineer role models in schools and colleges. “Try before you buy” ‘mini internships’ post university so that women female graduates can experience the reality rather than believe the perception.
Giving more career support and flexibility when joining university could also have an impact. Lowering the level of attainment needed in maths could also attract more women.