Lauren Ertl of Alpheus Environmental explains why the link between the pure sciences and engineering is so important in widening the appeal of the engineering industries and maximising the talent pool to fill the expected future skills shortfall in the sector
This Sunday, 23rd June, marks International Women in Engineering Day. Its aim is to raise the profile of women in engineering and encourage more girls and young women to consider engineering as a career, highlighting the amazing opportunities on offer.
As a proposals engineer with Alpheus Environmental, water and wastewater management company, it is great to see such events taking place, which are critical to tackling the stigma surrounding women and engineering.
This year the theme of the Day is to "#TransformTheFuture" and to celebrate the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), noting the outstanding achievements of female engineers throughout the world.
It also serves to address the prejudices which mean that even in the 21st Century engineering is still thought of as a job for a man. Sexual stereotyping and not enough female role models are well documented as reasons why girls don't choose engineering. As are misconceptions about the job itself, which isn't always about getting your hands dirty.
The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, with countries like Bulgaria and Cyprus leading the way with a 30 per cent female workforce. In 2017 a mere 11 per cent of the UK’s engineering workforce is female.
This is an interesting challenge if you consider the fact that the UK was one of the first countries to allow women to study and receive certification at academic level in mathematics and science.
It is vital economically that we encourage more women into the profession. In 2017 a Report on the State of Engineering in the UK concluded that we still have an estimated annual skills shortfall of up to 60,000 engineers, meaning that we need to at least double the number of UK university engineering students in order to meet industry demands.
To bridge the gender gap much effort has been placed on encouraging women to go into engineering careers, a move which will greatly benefit the industry and the economy as a whole. However, there is still much to be done if these statistics are anything to go by.
Yet there are considerable opportunities for engineers in what is an incredibly interesting and diverse profession. My own background is chemistry and I specialise in the challenging field of waste treatment. No two days are ever the same and it is the problem-solving element of this that I really enjoy.
The solution is fundamental, we need more women to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, both at school and university. We must also ensure that young women are made aware of the full range of amazing career opportunities on offer through qualifications in engineering and that teachers are aware of these.
That is why there is considerable merit in supporting employers’ initiatives with schools, helping girls to get a perspective on engineering careers and spreading the message about the opportunities that this sector has to offer.
This activity is something I have and will be undertaking, talking to pupils and making them aware of the diverse career options available, which will hopefully change their perception of STEM subjects. With publications such as Vogue including women in their top 25 ‘Most Powerful Women in Britain’ from STEM backgrounds, and finally a female Doctor in charge of the Tardis, these are small but encouraging steps.
But the challenge to get more women into engineering often comes well before then, and that is within families, with parents often averse to their daughter entering a career in engineering. Educating parents, as well as the girls themselves is therefore crucial
If there are female engineers who can act as role models, the likelihood is that the women will have positive attitudes towards exploring STEM careers. When you think of roles models today, you don’t necessarily think of; Katie Atkinson, Material Engineer for Jaguar Land Rover and Dr Sarah Chan, Civil Engineer for EDF Energy. These are however leaders in their fields and their considerable successes need to be made more widely known.
There is an incredibly positive and exciting story to tell about engineering. If we want world class infrastructure in the future we must take action now to ensure we have a world class workforce to deliver it now, aligning education policy with the needs of businesses and encouraging women to enter this wonderful profession.