Females in tuition: tackling gender imbalance in UK engineering

The UK has Europe’s lowest percentage of female engineers. It’s putting the future of the industry and the UK economy under threat. But why is UK engineering so male-dominated? And what’s being done to redress the balance?

Where oh where are all the female engineers?

To say that engineering in the UK is male-dominated is an understatement. Just 6% of Britain’s engineering workforce is female, giving Blighty the dubious honour of employing the lowest proportion of female engineers in Europe. The problem – and it is a problem – is deep-rooted and awfully stubborn. Female engineer numbers have hardly budged since the early nineties. And figures from UCAS show that only 15% of today’s engineering students are female.

But why is this such an issue?

Failing to recruit female engineers could cost the UK billions

The gender imbalance threatens the future of engineering and the UK economy. Engineering could be worth £27bn per year to the UK by 2022. But it’s dependent on a steady supply of wide-eyed, career-ready engineers. Yet there’s currently a huge shortfall; a major skills shortage. Demand for tomorrow’s engineers is greater than supply.

The Royal Academy of Engineering suggests the UK needs more than one million new engineers by 2020 – over 200,000 new engineers per year. That will require doubling – read again, doubling – the current annual total of engineering graduates and new apprentices.

And the benefits of boosting the number of female engineers go beyond plugging the national skills shortage. Diversity is good for the bottom line. Mixed teams (whether of race, gender or age) are naturally more creative and therefore, are better able to solve engineering problems.

What’s being done to tackle the problem?

Clearly there’s a pressing need to present engineering as a viable career choice for women. That challenge is being tackled in some very specific ways, with crosshairs trained on every tier of education – from primary school to post-grad.

The Big Bang Fair is a huge annual event at The NEC in Birmingham that aims to get young people excited about the application of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths) in the real world through hands-on activities, workshops and shows. 70,000 young people will attend 2016’s event.

At the other end of the educational ladder, Brunel University is pioneering a number of schemes to boost the number of female engineers. In 2013 they launched the Women in Engineering Master’s Scholarships scheme. Each year it funds 30-40 women studying for an MSc in an engineering discipline, giving each student a £5,000 bursary and a £5,000 reduction in tuition fees. Students also receive access to networking events and a mentor to advise on how to approach real-world projects and apply for jobs.

Perhaps the most exciting project is the development of the UK’s first newly built university for three decades. New Model in Technology and Engineering (NMITE) based in Herefordshire will specialise in engineering and follow a framework where 50% of students and teaching staff are women. By offering a first-year foundation in engineering, the university hopes to attract students without STEM A-levels. Courses start in September 2017 and applications open next year.

We need a cultural revolution…

Individual projects are all well and good. But what we really need is to change the cultural perceptions about engineering in the UK. The stereotype that engineering is a man’s job needs to be put to bed. Thankfully the industry now has some powerful female role models with plans to do just that.

On 1st October 2015, Naomi Climer was unveiled as the first female president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). Climer has vowed to attract more women into engineering and wants to show girls that engineering is not only fun, but can lead to a rewarding international career and the opportunity to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges. And, according to IET, parents have a key role to play too.

Gender roles are socialised into children from an early age. Even the different toys that boys and girls play with can impact future career choices. Just ask Network Rail, whose research revealed that girls as young as seven have developed an unconscious bias against engineering. They are now offering work experience placements to girls and providing an introduction to the railway industry through open evenings. The National Nuclear Laboratory has also started sending engineers to visit schools and colleges.

All of which will go down well with Naomi Mitchison.

In December 2014 Mitchison was named the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year. In an interview with BBC News, she argued that young girls need to be inspired to choose engineering at every point as they progress through education. It’s about making STEM subjects an engaging, inspiring choice throughout the curriculum. Currently as many as half mixed-gender state schools are not returning a single girl for A-level physics – a major gateway into engineering.

So once again, it comes down to education. Girls need to be made aware of the huge variety of roles available in engineering. At the moment it’s mostly boys who are being approached to tackle engineering’s skills shortage – something that Dawn Bonfield, president of Women’s Engineering Society, hopes to tackle with National Women in Engineering Day. NWED aims to help ignite ambition in the female engineers of tomorrow, drawing attention to the wide-ranging career opportunities available.


Change is coming…

The lack of female engineers in the UK is a decades-old problem. But with the future of the industry on the line, not to mention the presence of female role models in prominent engineering positions, there has never been so much energy behind the movement for change. An equal split between the sexes may be some way off, but the tide is about to turn.

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