The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that women make up around just 8% of engineers in the UK. At the same time, Britain produces 12,000 engineering graduates a year, while there are currently 54,000 vacancies; a shortage so large that inventor, Sir James Dyson, is in the process of opening his own institute to address this skills shortage.
Other data shows that 49% of state schools send no girls to study A-level physics, and of those students who are taking an A-level in the subject, only a fifth are girls - despite getting similar grades at GCSE as boys.
And it’s not that girls don’t enjoy science - girls outnumber boys in STEM qualification choices overall and outperform boys in STEM qualifications at all levels. Instead, girls are not choosing physics post 16, and are losing or rejecting the opportunity to choose engineering post 18.
Furthermore girls, on average, achieve a quarter of a grade higher than boys – a quarter (25.2%) of female candidates achieved an A in AS-level physics, compared with just over a fifth (21.4%) of male candidates and at A2 35.5% of female candidates achieved an A or A*, compared with 29.9% of males.
We need to address this problem as soon as possible, as thousands of bright young girls are missing out on a satisfying career. Unfortunately, it’s an system-wide problem that requires more than one solution, with each stakeholder blaming the other. Because of this we need a combined approach with everyone taking responsibility, however here are a few ways in which we could start:
Unless students have the opportunity to learn what engineering is all about, they are never going to know. So schools have to make the effort to produce quality careers information and guidance. At the same time, if the teachers themselves are unsure about what engineering entails and what jobs are available in the industry, then they need to get researching!
Science teachers and science facilities need to be invested in, and pupils need to be able to choose separate sciences at GCSE and physics and engineering (alongside other sciences) at A-level.
Schools also need to start early, so this means that primary schools need to step in and create opportunities for their students to learn about the engineering industry.
Parents are often a stumbling block when it comes to engineering, so dedicated sessions to help them understand what engineering is really about and what careers their children can go into will help parents get past the ‘dirty work’ image.
Again, as most pupils don’t know what an engineer actually does, let alone what A-levels they need to be one, go into schools and speak to them about what you do and what studying to be an engineer at university involves. Invite students to taster sessions and let them speak to current engineering students so they can find out what university life is like, and get to try out working and researching in a lab. They might find they like engineering and also love your university, so you will have gained some new recruits for the Autumn term!
Offer courses that might appeal to girls in particular. For example, the Open University offers what they call a ‘positive action programme’ for women in their engineering HNC. Women initially work towards the course on their own, and when they feel confident enough, the class is mainstreamed with the boys, giving the girls a headstart.
Promote problem-solving, rather than engineering, with courses related to real-world problems, for example a new Master’s programme called Humanitarian Engineering at Warwick University is open to Bachelor’s students from a range of disciplines and focuses on humanitarian law, logistics, global health, disaster resilience, renewable energy technologies, water and environmental management, and infrastructure to solve society’s problems.
Regardless of their level of education, spend more time going into schools and universities speaking to students, and offering them the ability to understand what the engineering industry is like through taster days, work experience and internships.
Current engineering students often don’t understand what a career in engineering will actually involve, and what is expected of an engineering student upon entering the workplace, but once they’ve had the opportunity to experience it for themselves, and they can see where their career might take them, they are much more likely to stay in the engineering industry on graduation.
When visiting schools and universities remember that women attract women. If you bring girls into contact with women they can see are doing well and enjoying their work, and are confident in what they do, they’ll be more likely to want to copy them.
Furthermore show them that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ in engineering. Girls like to think that they are unique and have their own talents and skills, and engineering is a perfect opportunity to show these off.
Another idea would be to make it easier for people to enter the engineering industry and offer a number of different tributaries where people can move in and out of engineering. With less focus on specifically having maths and physics A-levels and an engineering degree, engineering careers can be opened to a wide range of women who could easily learn specific skills as and when they are needed.
Women are also more likely to leave the industry, and employers should make more of an effort to keep them once they are employed. More time should be spent to help understand why female engineers leave and how the industry can keep them on board, help them gain confidence and help them grow.