Comment: Action still needed on industry's gender gap

EngineeringUK CEO Dr Hilary Leevers celebrates the increase of women working in engineering and conveys the huge task and collective effort that’s required to see substantive change.

Last month, we celebrated International Women’s Day. The day was filled with inspirational stories of women showing how they are contributing to building a better future, and how much more we could benefit from a gender equal world.

At the same time, EngineeringUK released new analyses showing that 16.5% of those working in engineering are women, compared to 10.5% as reported in 2010. I’m happy to celebrate this improvement at the same time as emphasising that we must strive for so much better.

The women in engineering briefing summarises how the gender composition of the engineering workforce has changed over the last 11 years. It shows that the number of women working in engineering roles increased from 562,000 in 2010 to 936,000 in 2021. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the number continued to rise, even while the total number of people working in engineering fell in 2020 and 2021.

While the percentage and number of women in engineering has increased, this progress has been concentrated in certain roles and industries, with women more likely to be in related – rather than core – engineering roles and working in industries outside of what is traditionally deemed to be the ‘engineering sector’.

There were also differences by sector, with women making up only 12.5% of those working in engineering jobs (either core or related) within the engineering sector, compared to 24.4% outside of the sector.

The report identifies the different definitions and analytical approaches which have been used to measure and report on the participation of women in engineering. Greater consistency in approach and messaging will help us to remain clear-eyed on progress and the work required to further advance the representation of women in engineering.

As ever, the more we know, the more we want to find out and our analyses raise important questions for further exploration. Why are women more likely to work in engineering outside of the engineering sector than in it? What has changed in certain areas of engineering that make them more attractive to women?

We also need to understand more about where these women are coming from. Some will be new entrants to engineering, and we have seen increases in the uptake of engineering degrees by women over this period. Some will be women who may not have core engineering qualifications but are moving into engineering related roles. And some may be women returning to engineering.

Our analyses follow some really interesting work looking at the retention rates of different demographic groups in engineering and how this has changed over the last 10 years. The research report, commissioned by Atkins, one of our Corporate Members, and supported by Good Relations, explores career deflection. The report highlights that women are more likely than men to leave engineering occupations, with 1 in 10 women aged 20 to 34 leaving within the space of a year. However, their 2020 data suggests small improvements in retention of women relative to men. A reduced difference in retention rate may contribute to the improving gender ratio.

While it is depressing that engineering retention rates are poorer for women and other demographic groups, such as people from certain ethnic minority backgrounds, it may be that this poor retention has created a talent pool that could be encouraged back into  engineering. Indeed, returners may have contributed to the uplift in female engineers that we have documented.

Engineering organisations have been actively changing to be more inclusive and attractive to women and hopefully this has helped bring some back into the workforce. There must be more we can do to communicate with those whose careers have been deflected for reasons which have improved in their absence, such as stereotyping or a lack of flexible working. We need to ensure that engineering attracts young women who could become engineers, retains those training to be engineers or already working in the sector, and also respond to the needs of women who have left the engineering workforce – and make sure they know that this response has occurred. It’s not easy to see how we can reach out to this group, but surely worth exploring.

Better representation of women must continue and extend to the most ‘core’ of engineering roles and sectors, and at the highest levels, if the UK is going to deliver its best engineering. We need to continue to support and promote women working in engineering, especially to the girls who should be tomorrow’s engineers.

Dr Hilary Leevers is the CEO of Engineering UK