Wednesday, 16 April 2014
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Where are all the women?

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It’s well documented that the UK is facing a skills gap in the engineering sector. The Royal Academy of Engineering published a study last year that highlighted the problem: 90,000 students graduate in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects a year in the UK. Yet 100,000 STEM graduates per year are needed just to maintain current employment levels between now and 2020.

Some government figures reveal a major source of untapped talent. Girls outperform boys across the board at school but only 12 per cent of engineering and technology undergraduates are women, and an even smaller number take up jobs in the sector once they leave university — just eight per cent of engineering professionals in the UK today are women. When I started my career with Shell in 1987, I was part of an intake of nine, four of which were women. I would hazard a guess that if you had an intake of nine engineers today you’d struggle to get four women. The UK’s engineering sector is missing out on a huge pool of talent that could help to plug the skills shortage we’re facing and allow the sector to grow.

‘The sector as a whole needs to go on a co-ordinated charm offensive to present itself in a way that is stimulating and attractive

Shell has a good reputation as far as addressing gender inequality in STEM careers is concerned. In 2012, the company was listed byThe Times as one of the UK’s top 50 employers of women. In fact, it is part of Shell’s Diversity and Inclusiveness (D&I) strategy to develop women in the organisation, with a view to boosting the number of female executives — Shell is committed to increasing the proportion of women in senior management positions to 20 per cent. Thinking back to 1987, of the women with whom I joined, two of us are still at Shell and both are vice-presidents.

Shell’s efforts to develop its female employees is laudable, as is the work of organisations such as the 30% Club, which aims to get more women on the boards of UK corporations. I participate in a number of initiatives designed to address this issue, but the absence of women in the boardroom is just part of the problem: a solution will only be sustainable in the long term if we solve the fundamental issue, which is the talent pipeline. Women on the board will come if the talent pipeline is robust. There is also a lot of focus on the professional services companies — lawyers, bankers, accountants and consultants — but the problems in the STEM sector are equally real.

The sector as a whole needs to go on a co-ordinated charm offensive to present itself in a way that is stimulating and attractive. We need firms to offer up role models to go into schools and engage with girls to show them that a career in engineering is female-friendly and can be for them.  Two things sparked my own early passion for the subject: one was my love of ships, thanks to my father (who was a naval architect); but the other was my maths teacher — who made me feel special because I was a girl who loved maths.

Women and equalities minister Jo Swinson hosted a meeting in August with academics and business leaders to kick-start a new focus on getting more women and girls to choose STEM subjects and careers. To achieve this, I think that educating the teachers and careers advisors in schools to address the misconception that ‘engineering isn’t for girls’ will help.

From the top down at Shell there is a recognition that we are not going to be everything we can be as a company unless we embrace diversity. The current CEO of Shell, Peter Voser, sits on the board of Catalyst — one of the most-respected gender diversity organisations in the world. We have the Women’s Career Development Programme, an internal training programme that aims to help women think through what a successful career path looks like for them; the Shell Women’s Network, a voluntary internal initiative, which helps to create a support structure to assist in the development and growth of female employees and a range of mentoring and learning and development opportunities to support women (and men!) to grow professionally.

Things have changed since I started my career. When I got my first job as an electrical engineering graduate at the Stanlow refinery, some areas didn’t even have a ladies’ toilet. When I looked ‘up’ I didn’t see women at the higher levels of the organisation. I think when an engineer starts with Shell today they do see women in senior roles. It’s up to us to be visible and inspire the next generation. This September saw a fresh intake of young women aged between 14 and 16 onto the Shell-sponsored programme, Girls in Energy, at Banff & Buchan College in Scotland, a one-year course for girls only, designed by the college and Shell to build STEM skills and to open young women’s eyes to the energy industry’s wealth of careers. We need more initiatives such as this to convince young women that engineering is a career for them.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Great, poignant article. Fantastic to see some of the world's global players making efforts to address this imbalance. In my recent blog I discuss some of the most commonly asked questions qualified female engineers have when they are considering engineering roles http://ow.ly/qQRNB

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  • Assessments at school are changing to become more exam orientated and less coursework. This has been shown to favour boys more and we may see a significant change to the gender gap in future.

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