Women hold the key

Most people who read this newspaper are men. Most engineering jobs are held by men, and most graduate engineers and engineering students are male. Engineering companies are aware of this problem, and some have been supportive of and active in attempts to attract more women into the profession, and to get more school-age girls studying […]

Most people who read this newspaper are men. Most engineering jobs are held by men, and most graduate engineers and engineering students are male.

Engineering companies are aware of this problem, and some have been supportive of and active in attempts to attract more women into the profession, and to get more school-age girls studying for science, engineering and technology disciplines.

But it’s an uphill task. Children have ingrained attitudes that need to be changed as revealed in the Mori survey for the Engineering and Marine Training Authority, reported in The Engineer last week.

This shows that engineering is the preferred occupation for about 17% of boys but just 1% of girls. It also reveals that 51% of girls aged 11 12 know ‘not very much’ about engineering, and 33% know ‘nothing at all’.

Half of those surveyed see engineering as ‘boring’, while 61% believe it means a dirty working environment. Only 5% are ‘very likely’ (2%) or ‘fairly likely’ (3%) to consider it as a career.

Even if these attitudes can be changed, it is only half the solution.

Once women are enticed into engineering, a disproportionate number leave. In 1996, only 21% of women graduates in science, engineering and technology subjects entered careers in this field, compared with 36% of male graduates.

Of those leaving, 27% of women chose a teaching career, compared with 12% of men.

It is important to get more women into these disciplines. Engineering companies in Britain are well aware that skills shortages will only worsen unless they can tap into 100% of the nation’s talent. Women can also bring additional skills to the workplace. They tend to be better team players which is becoming more essential in today’s engineering.

There is also a longer-term spin-off, which will start to be felt within the next generation. Parents’ opinions are the most influential factor in the career choices made by their children. Surveys show that what parents regard as a good job carries more sway with children than anything they hear from careers officers or see on television.

Women are the key influencers of future generations, as parents and as mentors. So the more women who choose science, engineering and technology careers, the greater the likelihood of there being a larger pool of boys and girls who will choose careers in these disciplines.

This is fundamentally important to the country’s future wealth creation.

But for many women engineers, the merits of their career choice are not always obvious.

Many women find a career in industry or commerce incompatible with the demands of a family. If both partners are working during the long school holidays, that can create problems. Women, rather than men, are the ones who often end up having to compromise their careers.

Many mothers find that employers are not sufficiently flexible to allow them to run a family as well as a career. Women are often made to feel guilty about taking an extended career break when they have children. Yet some also feel guilty at leaving young children if they return to full-time employment straight after maternity leave.

One solution could be more flexible working arrangements for women, including home working. The technology already exists to make this possible.

How about programmes in companies to ensure women on maternity leave feel part of the operations? These could include inviting them to team meetings, keeping them informed of new contracts and developments, helping them to maintain contacts with colleagues and keep their skills updated.

Family-friendly employment policies for men and women make good business sense, and are relatively cost effective. Engineering employers that can retain women with enjoyable careers will create powerful ambassadors for the profession.

This is worth remembering in the light of any proposed TV advertising campaign aimed at boosting the profile of engineering to society.

A change in the image of engineering is long overdue, and the power of advertising to persuade is formidable. But if parents greet such ads with snorts of derision, the exercise will have been a waste of money.

Pam Liversidge is president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a member of the Women in Engineering and Science national coordinating committee, and managing director of Quest Investments.