Engineering companies across Britain are working hard to tap a potentially huge and under used resource of skills, which could prove vital to their success and survival.
That resource is women. The gender imbalance in engineering is acute; and even a little redress could go a long way to solving the greater problem of the general engineering skills shortage that looms over every sector.
The problem, of course, begins at school. Girls are not encouraged as much as they should be to consider a career in engineering. The option is not presented in a way that appeals to their problem solving and leadership skills. According to the latest survey of women in engineering, if more girls are to share the benefits of working in the sector, much more needs to be done to raise awareness of the vast range of career possibilities and activities that it encompasses.
”The proportion of women in engineering courses is extremely low - just one in seven”
Britain’s Got Talented Female Engineers report
‘Engineering students are second only to medics in securing full-time jobs and earning good salaries. Yet the proportion of women in engineering courses is extremely low – just one in seven. The lowest for all university courses,’ said the report, entitled Britain’s Got Talented Female Engineers. The survey of women in engineering was carried out by Atkins, the engineering consultancy, in partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering, BP and Rolls Royce. The aim was to raise the profile of engineering as a career choice among young women.
Statistics show there is a long way to go in that regard. According to UCAS, the university admissions body, the proportion of female applicants across most engineering disciplines is very low.
Traditionally chemical, process and energy engineering courses at university have attracted the highest proportion of female applicants: that is 26 per cent. The next most popular area by this measure is production and manufacturing engineering: around 25 per cent of applicants for these courses are women. The least popular course among female applicants is mechanical engineering: only seven per cent of applicants to these courses were women on 2011/12. But also electronic and electrical engineering (9 per cent) and high growth areas such as aerospace (12 per cent) fail to appeal.
Clare Donovan, who works in the diversity team at the Royal Academy of Engineering, said the relative popularity of chemical, process and energy engineering may be attributed to the desire of women to contribute to environmental sustainability.
‘Meanwhile, mechanical engineering is still associated with ‘heavy’ engineering and perhaps with areas of engineering which are perceived to be in decline. There is also a chance that girls are receiving careers advice which highlights the opportunities in certain disciplines, rather than others,’ she said.
The implication is that there could be a large pool of potential engineering talent, which remains out of reach to the UK’s skills-strapped companies. But to get more women flowing into the sector, the Atkins report said better career advice for girls would be necessary, as well as more placements for girls to work alongside women engineers, and better provision for women speakers in schools.
But apart from the general need for more engineers, what would a better gender balance do for the sector? And why should women consider it as a career beyond the salary and job security?
Many of the respondents to the survey said in their experience women often brought an alternative approach to problem solving; women also made good leaders, and mentors for the next generation of engineers. Others said women had an advantage in the industry because they were in a minority: it helped when applying for jobs, especially with those companies keen to reach parity with male staff; others said that in meetings or at conferences women were listened to and remembered, which was good for their careers.
BRE, a construction research, testing and training consultancy, has had great success in recruiting female engineers. Amaia Harries, an engineer who is involved in BRE’s graduate training programme agreed there was a possible trend among female engineers towards working in sustainability, across a range of fields.
‘In general BRE is very gender-balanced, with areas focussed on sustainability successfully attracting female scientists and engineers. We have 11 female engineers, two of whom lead key areas of our business.’
She said a balance of skills and approaches was invaluable in business. ‘A balance of genders and cultures in engineering provides more dynamic and well-rounded teams. Women engineers bring different approaches to the same issues.’
She said BRE was successful in attracting women engineers because the work was varied, there were opportunities to work on large projects and influence change in the construction industry.
Similarly, the oil and gas sector also offers opportunity to work on major development projects, and is driving technological change in the interests of greater global sustainability.
At BP, Suzy Style, the head of graduate recruitment, said a third of the company’s graduate appointments were now female, up from a quarter a year ago. ‘Specifically with regards to engineering roles, we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of female applicants for graduate positions and internships. For example, I can tell you that we received 237 applications from females in this area in 2010, whereas this year, we had 459. We’ve also seen an increase of almost 5 per cent between this year and last in the proportion of women applying for more senior engineering positions.’
The historical lack of senior female role models in the oil and gas industry has made it difficult to recruit more women engineers into the sector. But BP set internal goals for gender representation, and Style said things were beginning to change.
‘Right now, over 17 per cent of BP’s top 500 leaders and almost 19 per cent of the top 5,000 leaders are female, and both of these ratios have increased within the last two years. These figures are really encouraging and point to positive changes in the way that women perceive engineering careers.’
She said BP ran a number of events aimed specifically at women. ‘We run female-only Discovery Days, where first and second-year university students can spend a day visiting BP’s offices, get a feel for what it’s like to work at the company, and meet female engineers and scientists who we hope will inspire them to pursue careers in our industry.’
But why should BP put so much effort into this? The reasons, said Style, go to the heart of what BP is as a business. ‘With demand for energy increasing globally, we’re facing a need for a greater variety of skill sets and diversity of thought within our workforce, in order to meet these demands. Part of widening the skills set and increasing diversity is attracting more women to the workforce.
‘Then there is the anticipated skills gap. The oil and gas industry needs to be seen as an attractive choice for women as well as men if we are going to be able to bridge this gap. At BP, we believe that a workforce representative of the society where it operates is vital to success.’