Why we need more female engineers

Posted on 22 Jun 2018 by Maddy White

Despite comprising roughly 50% of the population, women make up just 11% of engineers in the UK. With pitiful improvement in previous years, what can we do to better promote and encourage more women in to industry?

According to the National Centre for Universities and Businesses, only 14.4% of students studying a technology or engineering degree in 2017 were female, with this figure staying virtually the same over the past five years.

Engineering & technology UK undergraduates that are female
Engineering & technology UK undergraduates that are female.

Despite this, a survey of 300 female engineers from the Royal Academy of Engineering, concluded that 84% were either happy or extremely happy with their career choice, with a further 98% believing it is a rewarding path for women.

If being an engineer is a fulfilling future as these statistics would suggest, why are female engineers a small fraction of the industry’s workforce?

Research published last year suggests that just before the age of 11, girls in the UK are interested in STEM subjects, but this sharply drops when they reach 16.

“The research reveals that we can’t afford to wait until girls are thinking about university courses to foster their interest in STEM,” said Cindy Rose, chief executive of Microsoft UK, at the time.

The study also showed that having a female role model in a STEM career was one of the most effective ways to prevent this decline in interest.

Often, girls are not aware of women working in the field and the examples of scientists, engineers and people in technical professions they encounter are men.

How can we retain and nurture this natural interest in STEM subjects at the tail-end of primary education throughout secondary school and into higher education? We need more female role models in STEM professions, but with the consistent negligible increase of women in these job roles; how can that happen?

Ahead of International Women in Engineering Day (IWED) 2018 – 23 June, The Manufacturer spoke to the CEO of Women’s Engineering Society (WES), Kirsten Bodley, to talk all things women and engineering.

The former chief executive of STEMNET, whose background is originally in chemical engineering, explained that it is crucial to realise the potential women have in the engineering sector, offering up different skills to their male counterparts.

She said: “There are so many opportunities for women in engineering, exciting careers and they are just not being utilised. There is a massive need for skills and we need to encourage women into the sector.”

At WES the vision and mission remains to connect, mentor and support women in their journey through engineering.

Bodley explained that when women may have taken leave, employers have a tendency to see a “CV gap” over anything else.

She explained: “They are less likely to hire someone if they have taken leave like maternity or a caring role, which actually shows certain desirable skills. When they do come back they may need more flexible working hours, but at this level there is an unconscious bias that part-time roles are lesser.”

Bodley highlighted what she believes are possibly the biggest issues facing women in engineering: stereotypes and confidence.

Professional female engineers in UK by %
Professional female engineers in UK by %.

She added: “Confidence has been shown in key studies to be one of the biggest hurdles, in terms of progression and promotion.”

Even though there has been growth in the proportion of women in the engineering sector, the actual count still remains low. I asked Bodley whether the improvement was adequate?

Bodley replied: “There has been progress, but it is too slow. Our theme for this year’s International Women’s Engineering Day is ‘raising the bar’ and aims to take those next steps that is needed, such as greater mentoring and support in leadership.

“International Women’s Engineering day is about raising awareness and celebrating the achievements of women in engineering. We want to encourage young people to the fantastic careers there are in engineering and celebrate those already in the industry,” she added.

“We have all sorts of events taking place over the weeks surrounding the day. Our Top50 Women in Engineering (WE50) initiative is focusing on the returners and transferrers in the industry and like I said before, it is about better supporting women returning to work.”

The engineering sector is far from where it needs to be to have a more equal gender balance, and there no easy, or quick solutions. There is, however, increased awareness surrounding the issue which can only help to improve the number of female engineers.