Women in STEM: it all hangs in the balance

Women are more concerned with how interesting their career is than the salaries they receive, according to the recent Engineering Skills for the Future Report by Semta. And yet, data from the Women’s Engineering Society suggests the percentage of female engineering professionals in the UK is still less than 10%, the lowest in Europe.

Lynn Willacy, STEM Ambassador for Air Products, explores the challenges and explains why balancing the ratio of men and women in STEM is key to securing the future of the industry.

Lynn Willacy, STEM Ambassador, Air Products.
Lynn Willacy, STEM Ambassador, Air Products.

Across Europe, countries are doing everything they can to balance the gender demographics in the engineering and manufacturing industry. Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus are in pole position, with women making up nearly 30% of their workforce. Meanwhile, here in the UK we continue to struggle.

UK industry certainly talks a good game when it comes to encouraging more women to take up careers in STEM, so why do we continue to fall behind? In my opinion, the industry’s walk is not matching its talk because the desire to meet diversity targets is playing second fiddle to more pressing issues, such as the skills gap.

Here at Air Products however, we believe these issues are intrinsically linked and that by addressing the gender imbalance, we can tackle the skills gap too.

Thanks to Semta, we know that women are more attracted to interesting and varied careers, rather than simply careers that will pay more. This would imply that women who study engineering at university are more likely than their male counterparts to go on to pursue a career in industry, rather than change trajectory for a well-paying, less interesting job in finance, for example.

It’s clear then that the first step is to encourage more women to study engineering.  The industry needs to reach out to the next generation of engineers long before they even know that’s what they are! Pupils in secondary school are at a critical time in their life, making big decisions about their future, and we have to show them just how interesting, varied and rewarding a career in engineering can be. The question, is how?

Air Products’ Science Ambassadors visit schools to perform liquid nitrogen demonstrations and excite young students about science. We also attend careers fairs to share the opportunities Air Products can offer, and hold interview days to help students with specific employability skills.

It is hoped that the ASK will also act as a collaborative skills-hub for the North West’s engineering and manufacturing sector - image courtesy of BAE Systems.
It is vital to demonstrate that engineering is not just for boys – image courtesy of BAE Systems.

This is all about showing young women of secondary school age that engineering is not just for boys. We take great care to make sure women are represented equally in everything we do.  That’s why 28 out of the 70 experts Air Products provides to the Science Ambassadors national programme are female.

But we’re not resting there. Air Products is working with Hypatia, a project across 14 European countries funded by Horizon 2020 that aims to foster greater collaboration between teenagers, science centres, schools, researchers, gender experts, policy makers and industry partners, to encourage 13-18 year olds to get into STEM learning and careers.

We’ll be playing our part in contributing to a national training strategy that ensures everyone – from teachers, to science presenters and STEM ambassadors – recognise their responsibilities when it comes to gender diversity and inclusion.

In line with national strategy development, there is real, practical action happening too. As part of the project for example, we’ve already pledged over the coming six months to review the language in our job adverts and job descriptions to make sure they are not gender biased, recruit even more female Science Ambassadors, and educate our existing Science Ambassadors to be sensitive to the language they use in schools.

We hope this approach will help to balance the ratio of men and women in engineering, but we can’t do it alone. The entire industry should reach out to young women while they’re still at school to show them exactly what kinds of careers are on offer. By doing so, I am convinced we can close the skills gap and ensure the future of our industry.