O woman where art thou?

Posted on 16 Jul 2010 by The Manufacturer

Women are still avoiding the male dominated manufacturing industry when making their career choices according to recent statistics. TM reporter Jane Gray talks to academia and industry to find out whether the figures represent the reality.

Despite recent efforts among manufacturers to alter the public perception of manufacturing and clean up a common image of the industry as a dead end sector it would seem that certain social segments remain unconvinced about the opportunities a career in manufacturing might hold for them.

Recently released statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show that the proportion of female students on science based courses has either stayed almost stagnant or declined across the entire range of STEM subjects since 1998. Of particular concern to the manufacturing industry is the fact that the worst performing areas for female student intake are engineering and technology subjects – the proportion of women on these courses is a miserly 15% which reflects just a 1% rise in the last ten years.

This imbalanced gender demographic is clearly tangible at student engineering events like the Formula Student completion which is being held by the Institute for Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) this weekend. Although the HESA statistics suggest that one in seven engineering students will be female there hardly seemed to be more than four or five among the crowd of hundreds that packed into the opening ceremony yesterday.

TM raised the subject with the event chairman Jon Hilton. “Yes there are a lot fewer girls that take part year on year but – just from my impressions walking around – I would say that it is worse this year than ever before. I wouldn’t be surprised if the proportion is fewer than ten percent female this year”. A poor outlook for an event attended by over 3000 of the most promising engineering students from across the world.

Claire Barlow, senior lecturer at Cambridge University’s Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) is slightly perplexed by the visibility of this dearth of female engineering graduates. “The statistics can’t be wrong but this is an imbalance we don’t really suffer from at IfM. Year on ear around fifty per cent of the student on our MET [Manufacturing Engineering Tripos] course are girls – and they make up an impressive proportion of our highest performing students. The trouble is that many of them don’t go into industry on graduation – perhaps around thirty per cent. The stars are usually attracted by consultancy companies who offer high salaries and make a fuss about them. Manufacturing in general is bad at making a fuss of talent.”

Mervin Dadd, communications director at Sector Skills Council for science based industries, Cogent says “The fact is this is an awfully big ship to turn around. The boy’s club image of the industry workplace is very deep-set and not enough people are yet consciously tackling this issue. Often this because there is a broader issue at stake here than just getting more people. Employers are more worried about the level of skills being taught in universities and the practical capabilities of graduates than in their gender.”

Although may seem to intensify the negative outlook for industry skills, portraying them as not only socially unrepresentative but also lacking in quality Dadd goes on to draw out a positive trend from Cogent research. “The fact is that we are seeing an increasing proportion of the women who do take engineering degrees going on to take postgraduate qualifications. They feel that the MSc course fails to give them employability and are taking the time to specialise and further develop their skills.”

Given Dadd’s comment that a basic STEM skills problem is a priority worry for employers, is the gender imbalance in manufacturing and engineering really a cause for concern? Unanimously the answer from those canvassed by TM is affirmative. Hilton comments “If there is a skills gap to be bridged then it is unwise for industry to unnecessarily limit their talent pool by failing to tap into the potential of fifty per cent of the population.”

Barlow goes further to say “It may not be very PC but there is some truth in the idea that women bring better attention to detail, teamwork, and mentoring into business. I do believe that a more balanced work environment will create a better work culture.”