Friday, 19 September 2014
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Why aren't there more women engineers?

New figures suggesting that the number of women pursuing a career in engineering is in decline make worrying reading for the UK’s technology sector.

According to the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) annual workforce survey, despite a raft of initiatives designed to engage women (including the IET’s own young woman engineer of the year competition), progress in addressing industry’s gender imbalance appears to have stalled. Not only does the UK have the lowest proportion of female engineering professionals in the EU (just 8.7 per cent) but the IET points to decline in the number of female engineering technicians from five percent to three per cent since 2008.

Whatever the reasons for this, it certainly has little to do with any gender-based predisposition. In the world’s industrial superpower China, more than a third of the engineers are female, while here in the UK female students regularly outperform their male peers in STEM subjects at GCSE.

And yet in the UK, post GCSE, the gender imbalance starts to kick in. At A-Level STEM subjects are dominated by males: according to the latest figures from Engineering UK Just 22 percent of last year’s A -level physics students were female. In Higher education the gap widens further, with women making up just 12 per cent of those enrolling on engineering courses. While away from academia just four per cent of the UK engineering apprenticeships are female.

The reasons for this are complicated. It certainly seems that the pattern is set early and that the perception and engagement issues that industry continues to struggle with are at their most pronounced when it comes to young women. But it would also be naïve to suggest that misconceptions are the only problems and industry itself is completely free of sexism.

While the reasons for industry’s gender gap may be hard to fathom, one thing is certain: as the skills gap begins to bite, it’s vital that the UK capitalises on the skills of all of its available talent.

Failure to promote careers in engineering for women will mean that we will continue to miss out on 50 per cent of the available talent, an oversight which could have serious repercussions for society and the future strength of the economy.

 What do you think could be done to encourage more women into engineering? Join the discussion and have your say on our new forums.


Readers' comments (67)

  • The reason for the gap in this industry is easy to explain:

    Women don't have to succeed in careers the way men do because they can have babies.

    That's it.

    Why in the world would a woman who wants to stop working at age 30 to have two children want to spend years training for a difficult and poorly paid job with low (unfairly low) social recognition?

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  • Perhaps it is because they think that they will be fixing lifts, or photocopiers, or the telephones like most 'engineers' in this country do, as the IET makes no effort to protect the engineer title.

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  • Raising children is harder than going out to work! Or so I gather from the example of my parents, where when my dad couldn't find work (as an automobile engineer) he stayed home and looked after us. Couldn't WAIT to get back to work, where you can clock off.

    Lack of women.. well, prospects and promotions are limited not only if you have kids (and I agree, that they'll take three or so years out is a valid reason to not want employ someone) but the assumption that any woman of about the right age MIGHT have kids.

    One engineering researcher told me that women just get fed up with the unsupportive environment and would rather drop out and be happy than stay on and suffer. Whether men feel more supported or feel more obliged to stay on and suffer was not mentioned.

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  • Why aren't there more women engineers? - I don’t know mate.
    Has anyone thought of asking young women why they don’t want to go into engineering?
    Oh and if they do, could they make the results public, that would be helpful.

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  • Engineering is run by people who are guilty of some of the lowest forms of sexism - whilst claiming and cheering equal opportunities and the 'best person for the job' recruitment policies, they hold in place the thickest of glass ceilings and champion male proteges leaving women to look elsewhere for careers.

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  • Deus: Not all women stop work at 30 to have two children. My mum had two children and then went back to work - once her maternity period stopped - as she had a career she wanted to continue. That's why she went through college in the first place.

    The reason I see it is it's more to do with the perception of engineering being a male dominated environment and the gender stereotype from birth of engineering is for boys who want to get their hands dirty - and not for little girls. Working in engineering recruitment for a large utilities company, I've spend the last few years at schools trying to change this perception with little success.

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  • The pay/responsibility ratio in most engineering disciplines is relatively poor in comparision to other professions. We've all come back from the dentist or solicitor etc. thinking we studied the wrong subject when we've found out what they charge and, after subtracting reasonable overheads, what some of these other professions are left with.

    If women choose to follow other careers with better pay/responsibility ratios than engineering then maybe this highlights a gender divide in business acumen. The root of this would be that engineering has a relatively low standing in this country and therefore anything we do to make engineering more attractive to everyone will increase the attraction of the profession to women.

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  • My experience is that engineers are not supported. Engineering and engineers are not viewed as 'sexy', (no, really!). As stated already the name engineer is not protected and it is a bit galling that you are in thsame classification as a photocopier fixer and a garage mechanic. I have recently graduated with a second degree funded by myself. MBA? How much do you need? Engineering in this country needs to be recognised as the thing that's responsible for everything we use in a modern society - infrastructure, products, services etc. I know that the engineering societies need to get their marketing sorted out to improve the image of an engineer. Perhaps then it might be seen as an attractive profession for women and men. Sex is not a prerequisite for an engineer - a brain is!

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  • Men and Women are, generally, different. Typically, If you want to attract a male to something you need a different approach than to attract a woman. This is sexism (I checked the definition). I have worked with many male and female engineers and the experience I have had is that there are fundamental differences in the way the sexes operate and think. Society has been trying to ignore this for the last few decades but it is futile. I believe that there are many roles in engineering that are better suited to women than to men but the best way to recruit for them is not to refer to them as engineering jobs. At the end of the day engineering is percieved as a male role. How many domestic engineers are there? Millions but they don't like to be called that.

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  • Is there enough being done at grass roots level to attract women to engineering from an early age?

    To be an engineer, you probably need to have made the right subject choices when you choose GCSE options at the age of 13. If you are not interested in the subjects required for a career in engineering then (and know you need to be good at them), it would be very difficult to make up for it later if you decided engineering was your choice of career.

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