Hidden talents

If employers did more to encourage women back to work they could help solve their recruitment shortage and unleash new skills. Anh Nguyen reports

UK engineering is missing a golden opportunity to plug the growing skills gap by failing to recruit and retain more women, according to a study of female employment in the sector.

A briefing paper from the Engineering and Technology Board (ETB) found that while the gender balance at school in science, technology, engineering and mathematics was fairly even, only 27 per cent of women with science, engineering or technology (SET) degrees went into associated careers compared with 54 per cent of men.

‘At school there is a very good balance between the genders and between their attainment. As young people progress through their education in science engineering and technology, fewer and fewer girls stay with it. So when it gets to A-level physics, the numbers drop from 51 per cent of females down to 22 per cent,’ said Dr John Morton, ETB chief executive.

Morton admitted that while the ETB has tried to increase participation of women in engineering over the last few years he was concerned that the effects of their current efforts had plateaued.

‘Skills shortages and demographic issues now [such as an ageing population] are such that it is time that employers realise that they have to do business differently to attract and attain women,’ claimed Annette Williams, director of the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET.

Organisations such as the UKRC and the Women’s Engineering Society, (WES) run a number of programmes dedicated to helping female engineers and companies to reverse this trend.

WES, for example, runs an independent mentoring scheme called MentorSET, which matches female engineers with other women in the sector from outside their organisation. ‘One of our concerns is that women are not getting mentored in the right kind of way. Because women don’t have linear career paths, if they are on a career break they sometimes need mentoring to help them get back,’ said Jan Peters at WES.

The UKRC offers bursary schemes for women to undertake courses, through the Open University, to help them go back to work. ‘There are leadership and network schemes for women. The energy sector, for instance, has got a big network now set up for women,’ said Williams. ‘Some companies run their own awards and annual prizes as ways to encourage this.’

An example of an awards event is the Inspire Awards, aimed at female professionals in the built environment. At last month’s ceremony Elspeth Duxberry, a director at engineering consultancy Atkins, won an award for outstanding achievement.

Duxberry said her employer has the right approach to female staff. ‘Atkins has very good HR policies in place for flexitime, for home- working and things like childcare vouchers, to make it easier for women who do have families to work in industry.’