Industry ‘cannot rely on government to address gender gap’

Industry must take responsibility for changing women’s perceptions of engineering if it is to solve the growing skills shortage problem, warned John Weston, chief executive of BAE Systems this week.

Speaking at an Opportunity Now conference in Liverpool on the lack of women in engineering, Weston said companies could not afford to rely on the government alone to address the gender gap facing manufacturing industry.

BAE Systems is aiming to increase the number of engineers it employs by 8% over the next few years, equivalent to 2,000 per year. But while 36% of 18 year-olds went on to higher education in 1998, the proportion of undergraduates on engineering courses dropped by nearly 6%.

`The UK is producing only 16,340 new engineers a year, proportionally fewer than many other countries such as Japan, Germany, France and even Finland,’ said Weston.

With 53% of the graduate population now being female, companies looking to recruit more engineers need to be seen as an attractive option for women. And the profession needs to get away from its boring and dirty image and be seen as an exciting and well paid career, he said. The average salary for a chartered engineer in 1999 was £38,000.

Kate Bellingham, former presenter of the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World programme and a qualified electronic engineer, said it was all too easy for companies to think of themselves as equal opportunities employers simply by providing women’s toilets.

Work cultures need to be addressed as well, as business decisions are being made not just on the golf course but also in the men’s toilets, leaving women excluded, she said.