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A new government campaign with wide industry support is aiming to boost the numbers of young people — and especially girls — studying physics and maths and seriously considering careers in Science, Technology, Engineeering and Maths (STEM)-related professions. The Your Life campaign has ambitious and concrete goals: having ‘the vast majority’ of A-level candidates taking maths by 2020; to double the proportion of women taking technology and engineering degrees to 30 per cent by 2030, and increase the overall numbers selecting these degree courses; and to boost the participation of women at all levels in technology and engineering.

Several already-announced initiatives are being subsumed into the campaign, including the removal of the cap on student numbers in higher education in 2015 and releasing £200million for improving teaching facilities for these subjects — which tend to be more expensive to teach — and £185million to support teaching, but only for institutions which can demonstrate a commitment to equality and diversity.

The government is also to create chairs in maths and physics, whereby top PhDs will ‘inject significant subject expertise that will help fuel the pipeline of 16-18 year olds progressing in maths and science to university and employment in sectors requiring these skills.’ We don’t know what this means, but it sounds good and we await with interest what this will entail in practical terms.

Another government assertion is that ‘setting high expectations in maths, science and computing curricula to match the best in the world’ will play a part. We don’t know what evidence there is that this will boost student numbers and can’t see any correlation between setting high academic  standards and attracting more girls, but there’s certainly no downside to high standards as long as there is support for the teachers to attain them, because in many cases the teachers themselves will have to update their own knowledge and expertise in these fast-developing areas.

It can’t be denied that there’s an issue to tackle in this area. At GCSE level, equal numbers of boys and girls — about 150,000 of each — study physics. At A-level, when students have more choice over their studies, this drops dramatically, down to about 25,000 boys and just 7000 girls. It’s clearly ridiculous to suggest that it’s the change in complexity between these two levels that puts girls off; it’s got to be the encouragement they’re given to study, and that has to be related to the way that the degree courses that require physics, and the careers they lead to, are presented to prospective candidates.

As you’d expect from a magazine which regularly publishes Women in Engineering supplements and features, we’re strongly in support of Your Life. Evidence is mounting that there’s no qualitative difference between male and female brains and the suggestion that men are somehow ‘just better’ at STEM subjects must surely be confined to the Dark Ages; the relatively small difference in physical strength between the genders is no longer the barrier it might have been before mechanisation, and it’s ridiculous that the STEM sector is still largely failing to draw on the potential of half of the population. Indeed, it’s ridiculous that I should have to write such a paragraph.

Institutions have, as you’d expect, been quick to offer their support. Nick Baveystock, director-general of the Institution of Civil Engineers, says ‘Female applications to ICE are rising, with graduate numbers reaching 18%, and our under 19s engagement work and collaboration with other bodies and Government has led to some excellent initiatives. But the reality is that we struggle to attract women into the profession, and to retain them, and I believe this erodes our ability to offer creative civil engineering solutions to societal needs.  There is a commercial as well as social imperative to right the imbalance and efforts must be ramped up.’ The Royal Academy of Engineering chief executive, Philip Greenish, states that ‘Engineering is a highly rewarding career for women and men alike, and the Academy is committed to encouraging women and those from underrepresented groups to consider it as such’; the Academy has unveiled a series of pledges in support of the campaign, which you can read here.

It is, of course, telling that both these quotes come from men, and that’s emblematic of the fact that industry has much to do itself: it can’t just be about education. Girls need visible and audible role models to demonstrate that they can succeed in any industry. This means that industry has to do better at promoting women to senior positions; putting forward and encouraging women in engineering positions to speak at conferences and take on roles as industry spokespeople. There’s already a flourishing movement of British women in academia and industry to improve their visibility — it’s known as ‘ScienceGrrl’ and it deserves more support.

We’ll continue to support efforts to make engineering a broader, more welcoming place because we’ve been told so often that more diverse groups are more effective and more innovative, as well as just being more pleasant for all to work in. And it bears repeating that what we’re talking about here is taking advantage of the potential of more of the population to contribute to the industry and the country.

Readers' comments (8)

  • The girls are not the problem, there is still a huge amount of bulliyng in the workplace, and girls are generally put down by their male colleagues, it is assumed that girls cannot perform DIY, vehicle maintenance, ot technical tasks, by chauvinistic males. Office banter is often very sexist and derogatory towards females. It is the men we have to address, we need to get back to common manners and good practice, and I do not mean a man who will open a door for a lady, but one who will treat women as equal, culture change is what we need. The tribunal route is not the solution, lets remember that HR managers are employed by companies, and as such are paid to protect the company, not the employee.

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  • Yes, making a workplace comfortable for women may well require extensive reeducation of some men, unfortunately, among other tasks.

  • Without doubt the STEM subjects are a lot harder, especially at A level and above. Maybe encouragement in financial terms for the extra work that has to be done - Obtain a 2.2 degree or above and the government pays the university fees?

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  • If I were a 16 -18 year old being used to 'fuel... a pipeline' I'd be looking for a different occupation (or at least degree) for my life.

    This takes the term 'Human Resources' down to new lows.

    Guaranteed, good quality child care at work would do the most to encourage women in to engineering or any other profession when it comes to it, and would equally benefit those at the start of and later in their careers. Of course the owners/bean counters would moan if they actually had to pay for it.

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  • I am fully in favour of anything that boosts the numbers pursuing useful subjects at degree level instead of Mickey-Mouse degrees. I am fully supportive of the place women have in this arena. I do not however support any measure that might preferentially promote women, in whatever sphere of education or employment, particularly if it is at the expense of men. As additional places fine, not gender engineering.

    I do not see a need to have one to one parity of the sexes in any sphere. I do not for instance see a government drive to balance the gender pool in midwifery or primary school teaching. Equality does not mean being the same.

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  • There is actually a drive to increase numbers of male primary school teachers.

  • This connects with the recent post (link below) from Laura Pickard where she said. ' Many girls feel strongly about topics like conservation, climate change and animal welfare.'

    I agree with Stuart that there is no real difference between make and female brains. I therefore find it problematic when ' the environment' is used to attract 'girls' to Engineering as this suggests the same social conditioning ('girls are caring') (which it must be if our brains are the same) that is being fought against is being used to make engineering 'relevant'. May be it is the circles I socialise in but most males and females who are engineers or not respect engineers and engineering - precisely because it has overcome the limitations imposed by nature ( drought, pestilence, the speed of a horse) by attempting to dominate it. (Domination does not mean destroy). We get it wrong sometimes, but mainly we are right in the end.

    And Stuart is correct 'Equality does not mean being the same.' Although I wonder what subjects Readers of The Engineer consider Mickey Mouse? Art History? Universities would be sorry places if they had to always produce economically sustaining workers or COGs- which we are in danger of doing with Engineering.

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  • Having worked in engineering for the best part of 12 years I have developed quite a think skin. Workplace banter does not worry me as I often prove myself more than worthy of my job. I have earned the respect of my colleagues over my time in the industry, but don't feel that I have had to work any harder to do it than some of my male counterparts.
    However I was quite lucky, my father is an engineer and from an early age I was helping service cars and building things at home. My physics teachers at school were also quite forward thinking and encouraged me towards a career in engineering rather than biochem.
    Whilst I applaud the proposal to get more high quality students studying engineering I do not feel that gender engineering is the way forward. Why should women be given preferential treatment just to balance the scales, the best candidate is the best candidate simple as.
    There are always going to be people that are better suited to certain careers and trying to force a square peg into a round hole almost never works.

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  • On the subject of child care in the work place, raised by Paul Reeves above, that would be a fantastic way to introduce a new generation to the idea of making things and the very basics of engineering. I grew up building things; lego, meccano, wooden models then into minature gaming and CAD design when I was a little older and I would put these down as the primary reasons I chose to go into an engineering profession. If companies developed a decent system of caring for their employees children while exposing them to basic problem solving and making things it could have a very long lasting impression on how they see the world.

    As for Mickey Mouse degrees, having graduated last year the primary ones that stick in my mind would be Leisure and Tourism, and Marketing. I'm not saying these things shouldn't be taught as they are fundamental to elements of the economy, particularly in areas like Bournemouth, where I live, as a seaside resort heavily dependant on a good summer. But, do I think these requires a 3 year degree and one of the largest student bodies at my Uni? No, not really.

    As for financial incentive it would be good to see greater support for students studying infrastructure-critical subjects (STEM, medical, teaching etc.). Grants or scholarships for particularly promising pupils or a greater number of industry sponsored places.

    If businesses are struggling so much to get the candidates of the quality they need then pick them out of the crowd early, support them through their education with the incentive of a decent and interesting job at the end of the road.

    Average cost of a degree now (student fees only, not including personal) is about £25-40k depending on university and length of course. That is about the annual salary of a junior-to-mid leveled engineer except that it covers 3-4 years of their time, not 1. So for the cost of 1 engineer for 1 year you train up a new member of your team who has loyalty to your company and an incentive to study hard through education!

    You could even supplement their learning at university with time in the company through summer internships and/or placements if the course offers one. Seeing as these often form the most educational part of a degree anyway it gives the employer the chance to further mould their future employee into the engineer they need as well as giving the student hands on skills he can take back to university and use to excel. Seems like a win-win to me!

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  • Allowing The Engineer to become a platform for feminism will come at a price, like loss of readership, because the readership is focused on hardware engineering, not feminism or social engineer. If you don´t publish people´s opinions you become nothing less than extremists.

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