Mind The Gap: Gender is still a barrier
Women of all ages need better support and encouragement from both government and industry if a chronic gender imbalance in engineering is to be tackled and the sector is to continue to thrive.
That was the finding of a panel of experts, brought together by BAE Systems and The Telegraph, to discuss how to get more women into senior leadership positions in the Stem (science, technology, engineering and medicine) industries.
The experts called for root- and-branch changes, from addressing the poor perception of engineering among schoolchildren to putting in place networking opportunities and mentoring schemes for women already in the sector.
The Government has been vocal in its plans to put engineering and manufacturing at the heart of the British economy, rebalancing it from financial services and debt- fuelled consumer spending. They are working hard to increase the levels of employment in both jobs in engineering and jobs in manufacturing.
The manufacturing sector currently accounts for about 10pc of national economic output and employs around 2.5 million people. There is a recognised skills shortage – according to the manufacturer organisation EEF, four in five businesses are struggling to fill vacancies – and there are serious concerns that, unless it is tackled, the sector will struggle. Yet the number of women entering manufacturing is alarmingly low. The UK has the most male-dominated engineer workforce of any European Union member, at 92pc.
As John Perkins, of the Department for Business, Education & Skills, put it: “We have the lowest proportion of professional engineers who are women of any country in Europe. There seems to be a peculiarly British problem around the issue of gender diversity in engineering and technology.”
According to Engineering UK, the number of girls gaining a physics GCSE graded A*-C is almost equal to boys, yet they are not taking it further. Last year, only a fifth of A-level physics students were girls.
Anne-Marie Imafidon, a former banking analyst and now head of STEMettes, a body dedicated to encouraging more girls into Stem careers, told the panel that only about 17pc of those employed in the technology sector were female – and a report from the British Computer Society put that closer to 15pc.
“We have a serious problem with the number of women within Stem,” she said. “We don’t have enough people going into this industry to fill the jobs that we need to drive our economy. We can’t possibly have all the talent we need if we have only 8pc being represented by one gender.”
John Whelan, of BAE, added: “As one of the country’s largest engineering companies, we take the business of Stem skills very seriously. We need to look forward and talk about skills in a very strategic way. Getting access to the right talent is a business imperative. There’s not a big enough supply of young women coming into engineering.”
One of the many senior female engineers on the panel was Belinda Swain, of Rolls-Royce. She said she was constantly astounded by the misconceptions associated with the sector, which particularly impacted young women’s career choices.
“Engineering is not something people get excited about. [They] don’t see it as a career that will make a difference, which I find incredible – engineering is all about the things we need to make life work. It’s seen as menial, fairly low-key, not particularly well paid, and that affects boys and girls, but has a greater effect on women.” Companies and organisations are working hard to change that. Initiatives include STEMettes, the Big Bang science fair, and Sciencegrrl, a group dedicated to challenging the perception of women in science.
BAE runs a drama roadshow that reaches around 30,000 children across 250 UK schools. Carried out in conjunction with the Royal Air Force, it is intended to show Year 6 and 7 pupils, in a fun, light-hearted way, how rewarding engineering is.
The panel agreed that the people who influence children’s educational decisions – most notably teachers and parents – also needed to be better informed. The broadcaster Kate Bellingham, who has a physics degree from Oxford University, said: “If you focus just on the young people, they can have a short, positive experience – but if that’s not reinforced by teachers, parents or peer groups, it can slip away.” Combat systems director Jennifer Osbaldestin, a former Royal Navy officer, is among BAE’s most senior engineers. She is currently working on groundbreaking technology but conceded engineering had “a perception problem —[it] can be seen as boring”. Children needed a “roadmap” to show how and why Stem subjects can translate into rewarding careers.
“We need to improve our communication of what the jobs are and how people can get into those roles,” she said. “We as business people have a responsibility to think about nurturing that future generation. It’s also a responsibility of parents, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbours, to pick up the discussion about what jobs there are out there.” Many in the sector are backing the use of targets and even quotas to help correct the gender imbalance. For example, BAE has “aspirational targets” by which it wants to swell the number of women engineers in its ranks to 25pc, graduate recruits to 25pc and apprentices to 12pc. These targets are constantly monitored and measured to see if the right steps are being taken to reach them.
The panel drew the line at the use of quotas, however, with members agreeing that they did not want to be seen as token women who had not achieved their success on merit alone.
Jenny Body, of the Royal Aeronautical Society, asked: “It’s very easy to get a few non- executives [on a board], but when is a chief technical officer going to be a woman? That’s what I’m looking for — not just a random number of people who make up the numbers.”
But it is not just about the battle to get women into the sector: there is also a fight to ensure that they are equipped to move their careers forward once on board.
Mentoring programmes and dedicated female networking opportunities are gaining popularity in this area. For example, engineering group Atkins has a dedicated leadership council for the most senior 50 women in the company as well as various lower-level women’s networks.
Chris Marsh, of Atkins, said that the networks’ continued success was down to the women involved in driving the project. “An organisation can facilitate it, can start it off and empower the women to do it. But once we’ve created it, we step back – they are self-managed groups.”
One often cited reason for a lack of women in leadership roles – not just in engineering but across business in general – is that women are less confident of their abilities. Ms Osbaldestin, for example, wanted to take the next step in her career a few years ago but was unsure about how or why to go about it. So she spoke to a mentor and through that process was able to better understand her motivations, thereby giving her the confidence to put herself forward, as it turned out successfully, for promotion.
Ines Wichert, a psychologist, said: “We don’t want to fix women. But woman can do more things to help themselves: taking on more assertive behavior [for instance]. We know women tend to be a little more hesitant putting themselves forward for roles.”
The gender imbalance in Stem is well documented, and steps are being taken to change it.
The Government, for instance, has announced today the Women into Technology and Engineering Call to Action, which calls on organisations to work together to increase female participation in the sector.
Yet as the panel acknowledged, there is still a long way to go before women in engineering are the norm, a sentiment perhaps best summed up by Ms Body, the first female to be named president of the Royal Aeronautical Society. It was, she admits, an appointment that left some members unhappy, but even more saying “thank God, at last”.
But, she argues, her appointment is only the first step in a lengthy journey. “I was just a fluke. We will have won the argument when we’re on the third or fourth president who’s a female, or black, or disabled – that’s when we really will have made progress.”
‘We have the lowest proportion of professional engineers who are women of any country in Europe. There seems to be a peculiarly British problem around the issue of gender diversity in engineering and technology.’
John Perkins - Department for Business, Innovation & Skills
We’re just not getting the message across that Stem is a good thing to do, and that has a bad effect on the boys and an even worse one on girls. We’re ignoring half the talent pool if we don’t actively recruit women.’
Jenny Body - Royal Aeronautical Society
There’s not a big enough supply of young women coming into engineering. It’s not something people get excited about. [They] don’t see it as a career that will make a difference – but engineering is about the things we need to make life work.’
Belinda Swain - Rolls-Royce