Gender agenda

The UK government’s “Your Life” campaign is a welcome effort to encourage more women to pursue a career in engineering

A new government campaign with wide industry support is aiming to boost the numbers of young people — and especially girls — studying physics and maths and seriously considering careers in Science, Technology, Engineeering and Maths (STEM)-related professions. The Your Life campaign has ambitious and concrete goals: having ‘the vast majority’ of A-level candidates taking maths by 2020; to double the proportion of women taking technology and engineering degrees to 30 per cent by 2030, and increase the overall numbers selecting these degree courses; and to boost the participation of women at all levels in technology and engineering.

Several already-announced initiatives are being subsumed into the campaign, including the removal of the cap on student numbers in higher education in 2015 and releasing £200million for improving teaching facilities for these subjects — which tend to be more expensive to teach — and £185million to support teaching, but only for institutions which can demonstrate a commitment to equality and diversity.

The government is also to create chairs in maths and physics, whereby top PhDs will ‘inject significant subject expertise that will help fuel the pipeline of 16-18 year olds progressing in maths and science to university and employment in sectors requiring these skills.’ We don’t know what this means, but it sounds good and we await with interest what this will entail in practical terms.

Another government assertion is that ‘setting high expectations in maths, science and computing curricula to match the best in the world’ will play a part. We don’t know what evidence there is that this will boost student numbers and can’t see any correlation between setting high academic  standards and attracting more girls, but there’s certainly no downside to high standards as long as there is support for the teachers to attain them, because in many cases the teachers themselves will have to update their own knowledge and expertise in these fast-developing areas.

It can’t be denied that there’s an issue to tackle in this area. At GCSE level, equal numbers of boys and girls — about 150,000 of each — study physics. At A-level, when students have more choice over their studies, this drops dramatically, down to about 25,000 boys and just 7000 girls. It’s clearly ridiculous to suggest that it’s the change in complexity between these two levels that puts girls off; it’s got to be the encouragement they’re given to study, and that has to be related to the way that the degree courses that require physics, and the careers they lead to, are presented to prospective candidates.

As you’d expect from a magazine which regularly publishes Women in Engineering supplements and features, we’re strongly in support of Your Life. Evidence is mounting that there’s no qualitative difference between male and female brains and the suggestion that men are somehow ‘just better’ at STEM subjects must surely be confined to the Dark Ages; the relatively small difference in physical strength between the genders is no longer the barrier it might have been before mechanisation, and it’s ridiculous that the STEM sector is still largely failing to draw on the potential of half of the population. Indeed, it’s ridiculous that I should have to write such a paragraph.

Institutions have, as you’d expect, been quick to offer their support. Nick Baveystock, director-general of the Institution of Civil Engineers, says ‘Female applications to ICE are rising, with graduate numbers reaching 18%, and our under 19s engagement work and collaboration with other bodies and Government has led to some excellent initiatives. But the reality is that we struggle to attract women into the profession, and to retain them, and I believe this erodes our ability to offer creative civil engineering solutions to societal needs.  There is a commercial as well as social imperative to right the imbalance and efforts must be ramped up.’ The Royal Academy of Engineering chief executive, Philip Greenish, states that ‘Engineering is a highly rewarding career for women and men alike, and the Academy is committed to encouraging women and those from underrepresented groups to consider it as such’; the Academy has unveiled a series of pledges in support of the campaign, which you can read here.

It is, of course, telling that both these quotes come from men, and that’s emblematic of the fact that industry has much to do itself: it can’t just be about education. Girls need visible and audible role models to demonstrate that they can succeed in any industry. This means that industry has to do better at promoting women to senior positions; putting forward and encouraging women in engineering positions to speak at conferences and take on roles as industry spokespeople. There’s already a flourishing movement of British women in academia and industry to improve their visibility — it’s known as ‘ScienceGrrl’ and it deserves more support.

We’ll continue to support efforts to make engineering a broader, more welcoming place because we’ve been told so often that more diverse groups are more effective and more innovative, as well as just being more pleasant for all to work in. And it bears repeating that what we’re talking about here is taking advantage of the potential of more of the population to contribute to the industry and the country.