Female Engineer Operating Machinery

Bridging the gap: the importance of gender parity in engineering

Three crucial influencers in a young person's life - parents, teachers and industry professionals - must work harder to encourage young women into the engineering sector.

It’s been an important year for gender equality in the workplace across Britain. We’ve seen deeper debate around the gender pay gap across industries, and an improvement in female representation on boards and in the FTSE 100. Many industries are making progress in diversifying their workforces, but the discourse around gender parity in traditionally male-dominated sectors remains active.

In the engineering industry – my industry – the discourse settles around the lack of female talent, which we’re still experiencing. While it’s encouraging to see that the proportion of female engineers in the UK workforce has grown to 9%, an increase from 6% five years ago, the figure is still worryingly low.

This is a problem for the economy as a whole, given the overall shortfall of engineers. 1.82 million people with engineering skills are needed over the next seven years to fulfil demand. We’ll need to attract new engineers from every possible talent pool to have any chance of meeting this.

Many of the new female recruits we are seeing may be attributed to the hard work and dedication of industry campaigning bodies, schools and other engineering professionals acting as individual ambassadors and role models. It is evident, however, that more still needs to be done. There are three core groups that we need to target in order to effect change and see that 9% figure grow further: parents, educational institutions, and the engineering industry.

Parents are the first group we need to engage with, as they are the first influential people in a young person’s life. The IET’s own behaviour-changing initiative, the Engineer a Better World campaign, aims to inspire and educate parents about the diverse and creative opportunities in engineering, so that they can in turn encourage their children if they show an interest in the sector.

The idea for the campaign arose from IET research and insight into parental attitudes. Many parents feel that engineering is still a traditionally male-dominated industry, and as such, don’t tend to think it’s a suitable career for their daughters. As well as a clear lack of understanding about what engineering actually is, words like ‘dirty’, ‘technical’, and ‘not academic enough’ emerged as reasons parents initially thought their children would not be interested in engineering.

Naturally, this doesn’t paint the most appealing of pictures for a child. The ability to inspire and empower young minds lies with parents – so it’s important that they have clear information, free of stereotypical associations. The research also showed that just 7% of parents of girls felt that engineering would appeal to their children. But a large part of this can be attributed to the fact that two in five parents (41%) wouldn’t know enough to support their child if asked for advice about careers in engineering, let alone be able to explain how diverse, creative and fulfilling they can be.

The Engineer a Better World campaign, designed to support parents and bust the myths surrounding engineering, has been running since March 2015. It offers guidance and advice for parents so that they can feel confident to support their ‘little engineers’ if they show signs of interest in engineering, or in STEM subjects more widely.

With this in mind, education providers are the second group we need to engage with. STEM (Science, Design and Technology, ICT/Computing and Maths) subjects are more popular than ever among children, topping the list for kids aged 9-12 in the IET research. Why then, do so few continue these subjects into college and then university? If children are showing an interest in STEM and in how things work, they must be encouraged and supported to continue their studies in these areas – just as they might be in other subject areas.

Tomorrow’s Engineers Week is a fantastic scheme which took place recently, run by Engineering UK and the Royal Academy of Engineers. It works to bring exciting and interesting engineering-based activities to children, and helps schools to incorporate wider STEM teachings as well as engineering into the current curriculum. Their aim is to work with teachers to plant and nurture the seeds of interest in engineering. They hope that this in turn will become a springboard from which to foster that interest and grow local talent.

We need teachers to help us change the image of engineering to make it more appealing to girls. Our research has shown us that if we present engineering as creative, ‘making a difference’ and diverse, we will get more young people, particularly girls, excited about the possibilities of an engineering career.

On a wider note, children should be given more time and flexibility to decide on their career options. Currently, they choose their non-mandatory GCSE subjects in key stage four, and must choose the A-Levels which influence degree or apprenticeship options at just 16. Perhaps if children had greater freedom to decide later, more would consider STEM subjects? 

Finally, the responsibility for attracting women to engineering also lies with the industry itself. Despite the fact that just 9% of engineers are female, last month’s IET 2015 Skills & Demand in Industry report found that over half (57%) of employers in engineering still do not have gender diversity initiatives in place. Adding to that, 75% do not have LGBT or ethnic diversity initiatives. 

Since progress in this area continues to stall, surely it makes sense to start mandating action by getting companies to measure and report on their record of recruiting and retaining more female engineers? At the very least, meeting diversity targets should be at the forefront of industry’s strategic agenda.

It’s vital for business and the economy that engineering companies recognise the need for diversity in the workplace and consistently do more to attract staff from all genders, backgrounds and ethnicities. The onus is on large companies particularly to change their behaviours: if they set the example, others will follow suit. This does require consistent effort over an extended period, but there are UK-based companies, such as Atkins, who are now seeing the business benefits.

64% of UK companies claim that a shortage of engineers in the UK is a threat to their business. Technology is ever-evolving, sustainable smart-living is more necessary than ever, and demand continues to increase for everything from housing to healthcare and transport to space travel. Without engineers, none of this will be possible. Engineers know how things work, they problem solve, they provide clever, creative solutions to improve life for others – and we desperately need to inspire more people to join them.

If parents, educators, and the engineering industry as a whole join forces to help tackle the issue of female underrepresentation in engineering, perhaps, we will see that 9% figure start to soar. A deeper collaboration is the key to bridging the gap.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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