Comment: Why don’t more women become engineers?

Dr Hilary Leevers, Chief Executive of EngineeringUK, looks behind the headline stats to understand why there aren’t enough women coming into engineering and technology

As the world celebrates International Women’s Day on 8 March, we must focus our attention on the  ongoing need for more women in engineering and technology.

The gender diversity of the engineering and technology workforce has grown by 6 percentage points in the last 11 years, with women now making up 16.5% of the 5.7 million working in these areas. But this is still woefully short of women’s 48% presence in the overall workforce. A quick, back of the envelope calculation shows that there would be 1.8 million more women in engineering and technology if they were present at the same rate as overall UK employment. This highlights the scale of the gender imbalance. And I encourage you to take a moment, please, to imagine what a balanced workforce would look like, how its nature and qualities would change, and what it would be like to eliminate the current, very limiting skills shortages. So what would it take to make this vision a reality?

We need more equal progression into engineering and technology, so let’s look at the profile of those studying these subjects in further and higher education. EngineeringUK analysed the recent release of Department for Education apprenticeships data. We found that although the proportion of female apprenticeship starts has been improving for engineering-related subject areas, with 14.2% being women, this still remains well below the proportion across all apprenticeship subject areas, with 50.8% being women.

The proportion of female university students is similarly concerning. According to EngineeringUK’s new report, based on Higher Education Statistics Agency data, only 18.5% of first-year undergraduates in engineering and technology are women, compared to 56.5% overall. Women perform very well with almost half (48.6%) on engineering and technology degrees securing first class honours, compared to 41.9% men, and it is positive to see similar progression rates into the workplace 15 months after graduation. While this clearly makes the case – one that I hope does not need making – that women have the skills and capability to succeed, I would also like to see all the women who should have secured second class degrees taking up their places. It suggests that women need or feel the need to be at a higher academic level to enter engineering degrees.

Now let’s look further back into secondary education. Another new EngineeringUK analysis explored A level uptake in physics and maths as precursors to further study in engineering and technology. In 2020/21, about 56,000 young men studied maths or physics A levels, or both, compared with 37,000 young women – a difference, but not a massive one. However, 23% of these young men went on to study engineering and technology in higher education compared with just 8% of their female counterparts. So we need to see young women improving their uptake of these A levels alongside much improved progression from them into engineering and tech. Indeed, with the current conversion rate from A Level to undergraduate study, around 150,000 young women would need to study A Levels in maths or physics (or both) – 115,000 more than currently do so – to reach the same numbers of undergraduates as their male peers.

Clearly, more needs to be done at an early stage to cultivate young girls’ interest and appetite for these subjects. Our briefing on gender disparity in early perceptions in engineering found that fewer than half of girls said they think engineering would be a suitable career for them (42%), compared to 61% of boys. There’s a gender imbalance in the way young people think about engineering which we can try and improve by changing the ways we talk to young girls about engineering and tech careers.

There are already many organisations working across the sector to encourage more young women to enter engineering and tech careers. But we know that by working together, with a joined-up approach, we can drive change faster.

There are many ways that employers can help change perceptions of young girls and spark their interest in pursuing careers in engineering and technology.

  1. Consider delivering outreach in schools and if you already do so then please assess the impact you’re having – are girls included and engaged? Are you undermining stereotypes? You could think about how you talk about these careers with young people, and girls specifically – learn more in this webinar.
  2. Your employer could sign up to The Tomorrow’s Engineers Code, joining over 250 organisations working together to improve the impact of outreach, sharing learnings with each other.
  3. Get involved with The Big Bang Fair – we have space for exhibitors on the showfloor to get in front of young people, particularly girls, and show how they are welcomed and perfectly suited for a career in the sector.

The longevity of diversity issues in engineering and technology must not deter us from seeing them as priorities that need urgent action – we must reach for that vision of a thriving, diverse and fully supplied workforce.

Dr Hilary Leevers is the Chief Executive of EngineeringUK