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Why should we care about the lack of women in engineering?

In 2013 women accounted for only 7 per cent of the professional engineering workforce in the UK, yet women represent 42 per cent of the overall workforce.

Engineering is crucial to the UK’s economy, it is a diverse industry, engineers are relied upon to maintain vital national services such as energy, water, sanitation, communications and IT systems. A recent report from the IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research) estimates that an additional 87,000 graduate level engineers are needed each year between now and 2020 to meet growing demand, however, there are only 46,000 engineering students currently graduating annually.

Despite high demand, the industry is struggling to recruit a diverse workforce. This is highly detrimental to the industry, gender equality and has wider negative implications for the economy. Here at elder Studios we employ just one female engineer who accounts for only 5 per cent of our workforce. This isn’t out of choice but necessity.

The table below illustrates the share, across a number of countries, of engineering professionals who are female. It demonstrates that a lack of women in engineering is not just a UK phenomenon, however it also shows that a lot more can be done to improve the gender balance in the UK.

percentage female engineer by country

Percentage of engineering professionals who are female, by country 2012. Source: EU Labour Force Survey

Third sector organisation and researchers, motivated by gender equality rather than economic or business concerns, point out that women continue to be concentrated in particular industries, many of which are low paid and low skilled. To even begin to change these statistics it is important to understand why and at what point girls and women drop out of potential pathways into employment in engineering.

The gender imbalance in engineering is associated with the subject choices British girls make at school (Kiwana et al 2011) The gender imbalance in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects begins post-GCSE, when many young women drop out of STEM related study. Girls are now equally or more likely than boys to achieve an A-C grade in STEM studies however despite higher attainment in these subjects fewer young women than young men go on to study A-level STEM subjects with more girls opting for subjects such as languages, health sciences, speech, drama and art and design. The lack of young female students in A-Level STEM subjects creates a problem further down the line, when not enough women have the prerequisites to consider an engineering or science degree.

It seems that school environment can shape subject choices. In 2011 close to half of all state secondary schools sent no female students on to study A-Level physics whereas young women are a lot more likely to take physics is they attend an independent, single gender school. It is clear that engineering faces a recruitment challenge. Not enough women are choosing the right subjects at A-Level that lead to careers in engineering however understanding why requires a deeper analysis.

Research has shown that gender, ethnicity and social class all shape what careers are perceived as ‘normal’ and desirable among particular groups. Scientific careers are still largely perceived as masculine, although this is more true of some scientific careers than others. Engineering is seen as a ‘male career’ associated with cars, construction and heavy machinery. A career in medicine however is perceived as a ‘normal’ or desirable choice for women, because it is seen as a caring or nurturing profession (ASPIRES 2013)

These damaging stereotypes influence subject choice at school, a survey of 10-13 year olds found that 80 per cent agreed with the statement ‘scientists are brainy’. Despite the fact that girls perform better than boys in GCSE science and maths, boys are still more likely to see themselves as clever enough to pursue A-Level STEM subjects. It is proven that the groups that tend to be underrepresented in science, such as women, working class and particular ethnic minorities have relatively less confidence in their abilities to do well at science or maths than other subjects.

To help overcome these barriers to attracting greater female talent to engineering, government, schools and businesses all have roles to play in influencing career choices and aspirations.

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