Sponsored: Why aren’t there enough women in engineering, seriously?

A more diverse workforce can make companies more profitable. But there’s still a lot to do to make it happen.

There has been a lot of commentary about the lack of women in STEM generally and in engineering particularly – but I want to look at the root causes. 

Firstly, we know there is a demand for more female engineers. We know that the UK engineering sector has a skills shortage, leading to a huge talent crunch which will inevitably affect the delivery of projects worth billions of pounds. So we know we need more skilled engineers.

We also know that by not attracting workers from 50% of the population can only be detrimental – not just to companies, but to the wider community. 

So what are the reasons for this? I wanted to get an idea of what the root causes were and what stakeholders could do about them. I asked speakers from the forthcoming Women In Engineering event which celebrates the Year of Engineering and marks INWED in June.

Early Root Causes

Having a better understanding of why there aren’t enough women in engineering or enough girls interested in STEM will allow employers and other stakeholders to overcome the challenge. 

It is generally recognised that barriers begin at an early stage with unconscious reinforcement of gender bias.  These influences range from the type of toys marketed to boys and girls to the images they see in popular children’s TV programmes.  

As Mivy James, National Security Head of Consulting at BAE Systems pointed out, “It’s been proven that gender stereotypes still constrain the choices that both boys and girls make with regards to their interests. No matter how hard parents try, children are bombarded with gender stereotypes in books, advertising, toy shop displays and their peers.”

These impactful stereotypes are perpetuated throughout pre-school and school years, so by the time children are in primary stage they are already heavily influenced. And it doesn’t stop there. “Maths and science is socialised as a ‘boy’ thing and this can put many highly capable girls off these subjects”, Richard Chapman-Harris, Group Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Manager at Mott MacDonald added. 

Between school and higher education, the challenges remain and become expanded, as noted by Sue Ferns, Senior Deputy General Secretary at Prospect, who said, “As girls progress through their education, they are increasingly likely to find themselves in a student minority – which can be isolating and demoralising.” 

By the time they are starting their careers, a lot of girls will have been dissuaded (consciously or unconsciously) away from engineering.

Early Solutions

If we know these root causes are at an early stage of children’s development, could the solutions also be there? Of course they are. Children respond well to images and the image of what engineers do, and what engineering is, can impact their career choices later on. However, as Gareth Jones, Engineering & Technology Director at Rolls Royce pointed out, this can be changed, “The image or perception of engineering in the UK doesn’t do it justice. But we can have STEM programmes that engage school pupils from a young age; we can target teachers and parents as they have a big influence on children’s perceptions. Additionally, engineering companies can reach out to local schools and interact with the teacher population to better inform them too.”

Engagement with school children to positively influence their awareness of engineering is important – and everyone can play their part; from teachers to parents to employers. “We have to start engaging with girls at an early age. Gender stereotyping is often cemented into the way a young person thinks by the age of 7 and so we need to start connecting with girls before this. Raising awareness is key, but even better is providing role models. The more visible we can make positive engineering role models, the more chance we have of showing the future pipeline that engineering is open to all.”, commented Maya Kolaska, Business Consultant from BAE Systems.

The reality is that we need to start early to raise awareness of engineering to young girls, limiting down the bias they will face and building up their confidence in themselves and their career choices. I recognise there are other reasons to why there aren’t enough women in engineering or girls interested in STEM (careers paths, gender pay gap, culture etc), but I think these challenges (in employment) are predicated on the challenges faced by girls at an earlier stage. 

It is at this stage where the biggest challenges remain, but also the most impactful solutions lie.

The IET’s Women in Engineering event takes place on Friday, 22 June 2018 in Birmingham. Tickets are available from www.theiet.org/women-in-engineering

Riad Mannan is Events Portfolio Development Manager at the IET.

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