Gender agenda

When The Engineer was launched in 1856, the female vote was a distant dream, women were grudgingly admitted to a handful of higher-education establishments, and female engineers were a barely existent curiosity.

Thankfully much has changed in the intervening years, but although the engineering sector of 2011 looks positively enlightened alongside its Victorian equivalent there remains a huge gender imbalance at the heart of our technology economy. Indeed, the UK has lowest proportion of female engineering professionals in the EU – just 8.7 per cent.

So why is this? It certainly appears to have little do with any gender-based predisposition. In the world’s industrial superpower, China, more than a third of the engineers are female, while here in the UK female students regularly outperform their male peers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at GCSE.

And yet in the UK, post GCSE, the gender imbalance starts to kick in. At A-level, STEM subjects are dominated by males: according to the latest figures from Engineering UK, just 22 per cent of last year’s A-level physics students were female. In higher education the gap widens further, with women making up just 12 per cent of those enrolling on engineering courses. While away from academia, just four per cent of UK engineering apprenticeships are female.

The reasons for this are complicated but it would also be naïve to suggest that misconceptions are the only problems and that industry itself is completely free of sexism. Over the following pages we’ve tried to get to grips with this complex issue. We’ve asked why efforts to encourage women into engineering appear to have stalled and looked at how industry needs to do much more than simply pay lip-service to notions of diversity.

While the reasons for industry’s gender gap may be hard to fathom, one thing is certain: as the skills gap begins to bite, it’s vital that the UK capitalises on the skills of all of its available talent.

Jon Excell