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Industrial action: tackling the UK's engineering gender divide

Stephen Harris looks at how some of the UK’s engineering firms are increasing the number of women they recruit.

Receiving topless calendars in the post is probably not what most people expect or hope for when they spend years training to be an engineer. ‘You go into a lab or a workshop and these calendars are all over the walls because companies get sent them by their suppliers,’ says Dawn Bonfield, whose own experience in the aerospace industry 15 years ago is sometimes still echoed by women she speaks to today as vice-president of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES).

Thankfully, most firms would rather leave behind such overt displays of sexism that contribute to an old-fashioned image of engineering, although they do still happen. But even where naked pictures are banned from the workplace, women can still encounter attitudes, practices and misconceptions that put them off a career in engineering — or prevent them considering one in the first place.

Only seven per cent of professional engineers are women

The problem has been debated and dissected for years (if not decades) and yet the UK remains one of the worst countries in Europe for female participation in engineering, and there’s been little recent change. Only seven per cent of professional engineers are women, up just two per cent in the last five years, according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) 2013 skills survey.

This report also found a third of companies are doing nothing to improve diversity, despite wide discussion of its benefits. As well as profiting from a greater variety of perspectives and skills, companies would simply have a bigger pool from which to draw talent if more women were encouraged to take up and stay in engineering — something that could be vital to meet the often-reported skills shortage. ‘[Despite] all the initiatives that have been and gone and come again, the level of women in engineering as a result is just stubbornly not moving much at all,’ says Bonfield.

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Source: MBDA

MBDA has managed to increase its intake of female engineering apprentices to 50 per cent of the total.

And yet there is hope. Some companies have managed to buck the trend and achieved big improvements in the number of women applying to and joining their teams, with some managing to increase their intake of female apprentices to 50 per cent of the total — or even more. For the last 15 years, missile manufacturer MBDA has insisted that half the students and schoolchildren in its educational programmes are female. The results have been pretty astonishing: the company currently has 43 engineering apprentices, 23 of whom are women, while 16 out of its 20 business apprentices are also female. This compares dramatically with the two per cent total of female engineering apprentices recorded by the IET. ‘It’s not a quick fix,’ says Gareth Humphreys, MBDA’s human resources adviser for education. ‘Companies have got to work on this over many, many years. But if every company did what we did, we wouldn’t have a diversity issue in engineering in the UK in 10 years’ time.’

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Source: JLR

Just 2 per cent of engineering apprentices are women.

MBDA’s solution highlights what can be achieved by introducing more girls and young women to the idea of engineering careers. To some degree, the issues behind the small number of women engineers in the UK mirror those often associated with the wider skills debate: limited take-up of relevant science, maths and technology subjects; poor careers advice in schools and the lack of awareness and support from teachers; the low social status of engineering compared with other professions; the ‘oily rags’ misconception that it’s a dirty job that largely involves fixing engines (or worse, washing machines). But these problems appear to be exaggerated when it comes to women because of the lingering myth that engineering is ‘not for girls’.

‘I was the only one [of my friends] to do an apprenticeship and I’m one of the only ones to do engineering,’ says Laura Champan, an MBDA apprentice whose career choice was unusual even in Stevenage where the company is based. ‘While I was at sixth form, teachers just thought “university, that’s it”. They were a bit taken aback that I was doing an apprenticeship and they weren’t too happy about it.’

A 2011 report from Engineering UK found that 91 per cent of girls had ruled themselves out of an engineering degree by age 14 because they were not studying triple science at GCSE. And yet just two per cent of firms in the IET’s skills survey work with schools and colleges with the aim of improving workforce diversity. It’s why those who argue companies should get more involved with promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers through the education system are so passionate about it. 

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Jo Strange, Card Geotechnics

‘The time to get hold of women is when they’re at school, before they make their GCSE and A-level decisions, to make science, engineering and technology an option and avoid the stereotypes,’ says Jo Strange, technical director at Card Geotechnics, a small consultancy where almost half the 22 technical staff are women and that sends its young engineers into schools to be STEM ambassadors. ‘We are missing out on the best part of 50 per cent of the population because there is a misconception that they ought to be doing secretarial courses or arts degrees, and staying home and not getting muddy or dirty.’

Card Geotechnics’ success demonstrates that it’s not just big companies with big marketing budgets that can make a difference. In particular, engagement work can help small firms make themselves known as an attractive local employer. ‘Smaller companies can work with local schools through the technology department and offer work experience for a lad and a girl — it’s as simple as that,’ says Humphreys. ‘I do sometimes get a bit annoyed when I hear people say: “I can’t recruit anyone.” You’ve got to make that extra effort yourself.’

One schools campaign particularly noted for its success was the London Engineering Project (LEP), which brought together several engineering firms and organisations led by the Royal Academy of Engineering to create a programme for children at 50 schools in the capital. The pilot scheme aimed at students from under-represented groups in engineering found all its activities — which included after-school clubs, mentoring, residential courses and the creation of teaching material — helped position engineering as a more viable career choice.

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Source: Arup

‘There’s a misconception women ought to be staying home and not getting dirty.’

The new Diploma in Engineering qualification had its biggest launch in the country at LEP schools and one partner that surveyed its students’ career intentions found engineering had become the second-most popular choice. Another school even converted to an engineering-focused academy. In fact, the programme was so well received it has now been merged into a National Engineering Project with outposts in Barrow, Stoke and across Wales. But the project also found the effect on students was fragile and the image they built of themselves as potential engineers needed frequent refreshing or it would fade.

Dawn Bonfield of WES says this approach was successful because it didn’t just try to interest students in science and technology but also focused on the idea that they could become engineers themselves. ‘The best way of encouraging girls is by the individual reinforcement that “you’re good at engineering, you’ve got the right skills, you could be an engineer”. Lots of people get on the “STEM bus” at different points in school but as soon as a signpost comes up for careers in medicine or the creative sector they get off. They don’t see themselves as going to the destination of an engineering career.’

This means a one-off talk to students isn’t enough if a company is to see a return on its efforts. Shell, for example, runs a one-year course for girls aged 14 to 16 designed to build STEM skills and demonstrate that working in the oil and gas industry can include a wide variety of jobs. The scheme has only been running since 2009 and so the firm doesn’t yet know how successful it has been, but it says the course is part of a suite of activities that helps keep its graduate intake of female technical employees at 36 per cent and overall graduate recruitment of women at 35 per cent. But for smaller firms this could mean arranging regular work-experience placements and working with teachers to improve their understanding of engineering careers.

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Source: Arup

Only 16 per cent of engineering graduates are women.

Attracting female engineers at the graduate level is a particularly tough battle as only 16 per cent of engineering students are women, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. And while just under a third of male first-degree graduates take jobs outside of engineering and technology occupations, almost half of women abandon the sector.

For a company such as Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), the answer is to start early. Alongside various schools’ programmes, it offers three-, six- and 15-month paid placements with the company, aimed at women who are still at university, as well as bursaries. The firm appoints a mentor to each of the women on the sponsorship scheme to help ease them into the manufacturing environment and to maintain the link when they return to university. These initiatives have helped JLR increase its intake of female product development engineers from the national average of seven per cent to around 20 per cent.

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Source: JLR

JLR runs engagement programmes for women at school and university level.

‘I see it almost as a responsibility to shape the engineers and project managers of the future,’ says JLR project planning and integration director Danella Bagnall. ‘A graduate who is four weeks into her placement at JLR made contact with me because she’d seen me present at her university last year, which cemented her desire to apply for the automotive industry. It’s nice because it shows people are listening and that people who give up their time to talk about how interesting engineering is as a career can influence people.’

When it comes to the recruitment process itself, most people agree that quotas of female applicants aren’t the way to go — and for many firms there are unlikely to be enough women to fill them anyway. But companies can take steps to make women feel they would be welcome and comfortable within the workplace, from making sure marketing materials aren’t just full of pictures of men to having women on hand at careers fairs to answer questions.

Jo Strange of Card Geotechnics, which last year won an award from Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) for its organisational culture, says involving existing female staff members in the interview process is particularly important. ‘We’ll try to find the person that’s most closely aligned to [an applicant] to show them round the office… You do have to be fairly independent and able to function and communicate in a male-dominated atmosphere, and that’s not going to change. If every time a bloke speaks to you go bright red and want to crawl into a hole, it’s not going to work. But if you’ve got worries and concerns we can answer those questions.’

‘Women can be treated differently unintentionally. Sometimes male managers can make assumptions.’

Mary-Clare Race, Arup

Companies also have a task to prevent investment in their staff going to waste because culture and working practices are off-putting to women or are incompatible with having a family. ‘We find there are barriers in terms of retaining women, for example, where a women is working in a very male-dominated team, doesn’t have access to role models and perhaps can’t see a career path that excites her,’ says Mary-Clare Race, a management consultant and diversity manager at Arup, which has maintained a female recruitment rate of between 25 and 35 per cent of new staff members over the past five years.

She adds: ‘Women can often be treated differently unintentionally. There’s a lot of research that shows people tend to recruit and promote people like them. Sometimes male managers make assumptions: for example, if a woman has children that she won’t want to go on an overseas assignment. All those kind of things that can prevent women from progressing in the same way as men.’

Arup’s strategy to counter this includes leadership training and reviewing departments’ positions on flexible working — something only six per cent of engineering firms report a positive attitude towards — or presenteeism (feeling forced to sacrifice family commitments or work when ill). It has also set up several internal staff networks, a method increasingly used as a way of building women’s relationships within organisations dominated by men and allowing staff to share knowledge and skills.

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Source: Arup

Staff networks can help women with career progression and provide access to role models.

‘Staff networks are about making those personal links they can use in the business just by knowing somebody they didn’t before,’ says Dawn Bonfield of the WES. ‘But companies can use networks to look at things people often say women struggle with, such as negotiating skills, going for job progression and interview technique. And also it can be a means of auditing the business to make sure pay and opportunities are equal.’

Bonfield also points out that sexism and discrimination do still occur even in an industry that has changed dramatically over the last few decades. And often this happens in more subtle ways than
the posting of naked calendars. ‘It’s not always what you think,’ she says. ‘Sometimes you can have discrimination at the hands of a woman boss. One girl we interviewed said her company didn’t have a key to the ladies’ toilets, so she had to use the men’s for the first couple of weeks.’

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Source: Arup

Mary-Clare Race, Arup

Firms also need to strike a balance to a feeling that women are gaining unfair privilege, including from women themselves. ‘We have had a little bit of pushback from some of our senior women, who have a concern that the activity we’re putting around this might lead to them being seen as token women,’ says Mary-Clare Race at Arup. ‘That’s understandable but until we see significant change in the industry it may be something we have to live with.’ Danella Bagnall at JLR says all efforts to improve women’s position in the industry need to be based on competence. ‘The moment it seems to not be about that then it would be terrible day. But I think it’s about having positive role models.’

This is the strongest message from those engineering firms that have increased the number of women they employ: if companies are serious about the issue they need to get out into schools and universities and inspire potential talent. We can complain about teachers’ and parents’ lack of understanding of what engineers do but if the industry doesn’t tackle this problem then no one else will.


Readers' comments (1)

  • I was encouraged to do sciences at school because I could! I was an all-rounder academically and was persuaded that I could always use my love of languages at a later date. At the age of about 15 we were taken on a school trip to Rolls Royce at Derby. We were held in a room to await the production manager who would show us around. I was stunned when the person who walked in to join us was a woman! I followed her around and all I could think of was that I wanted to be like her...
    My father used to spend hours in the garage working on vintage cars, but had never included me. I started doing holiday jobs in factories near home and in Germany (through our local twinning committee) and asked to work in R&D. I chose to read engineering as having studied Physics, Chemistry and double Maths, I didn't want to specialise in any of them and thought engineering would better equip me to work in factories. After graduating as a production engineer, I worked in production for about 4 years before moving to a career in marketing/general management. I have always worked in industries that make things (including farming) and use my engineering training in everything I do, whether cooking at home or in my analytical approach to my work. A brilliant training, which immediately indicates mathematical and practical ability, although nowhere near as highly regarded as law or medicine but just as hard to learn!

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