Sense of potential

Only a small proportion of UK engineers are female. Jon Excell considers how this gender imbalance is being addressed

Take a stroll across the factory floor or through the design office of any UK engineering company and there is one demographic certainty: you won’t see many women.

Engineering is, of course, no longer an exclusively male domain, and there are many examples of women succeeding at the very highest levels of the industry. But, with just 8.7 per cent of the UK’s engineering workforce female, there remains a huge gender imbalance at the heart of industry.

What’s more, despite numerous efforts to address this there are few recent signs of improvement. According to one of the latest industry snapshots, the IET’s Skills and Demand in Industry survey, the number of women entering engineering has flatlined. ’We’ve done this since about 2006 and unfortunately it hasn’t improved at all over that time – it’s a pretty grim statistic,’ said Paul Davies, the IET’s head of policy.

So given the reported demand for around 600,000 new engineers over the next decade and an apparently widespread acknowledgement that more females could address this requirement, why are there so few women in engineering?

One of the UK’s most senior female engineers, Prof Ann Dowling, head of engineering at Cambridge University, confesses to being baffled by the dearth of female engineers, but believes poor perceptions are at least partly to blame. ’Women do very well in GCSEs and A-levels, and women that go into engineering seem to do very well and really enjoy it. So why there aren’t more coming forward I find hard to understand. I suspect that the perception of what engineers do isn’t well understood when girls are making decisions.’

“Gender diversity has to be placed absolutely at the core of strategic plans”


Annette Williams, founding director of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC), is convinced that negative perceptions do put women off. ’Women often discount themselves from even considering careers in those fields because they don’t see it as an industry they could get into and certainly not one they could get on in.’ The question is: where do these preconceptions come from and how can they be changed?


The IET’s Paul Davies believes the rot sets in early, and pointed to the findings of the Smith Institute’s recent Unlocking Potential report, which looked at the issue of women in engineering. ’The usual things have come out such as better role models, better careers advice to show the
challenges that appeal to women,’ said Davies. ’This ties in with how you teach science in schools and realising that girls don’t have the same interests, that they’re not looking for the same things out of it. For instance, according to the report, boys are looking for explosive chemicals, while girls are wondering why people dream. I suppose if teachers are teaching big explosions, girls won’t be interested.’

Equally worryingly, according to Williams, even those women whose enthusiasm for engineering survives school can find it dented by the university experience. ’I think the learning experience can sometimes be one in which their confidence isn’t built, one in which they can progressively feel put off – for instance, by a lecturer saying something like: “I’ve never known a woman see this course through.” That’s one actual quote I’ve heard.’

Dowling believes academia could learn from the way things are done at Cambridge, where women recently formed 29 per cent of the engineering intake. ’One thing that’s special about our course is that we don’t ask any of our students to commit to which branch of engineering they plan to go into right from the start so they can learn a bit more about all the fields and only make a decision after two years – I wonder if that helps. Women also respond to teamwork as part of their project work and that’s so important to modern engineering and is often an area where women excel. One of the false preconceptions of engineering is that it’s all to do with things, whereas any big engineering project is actually all about getting people to work together.’

“A false preconception is that engineering is all to do with things rather than with teamwork”


But while there are certainly questions to be asked about how academia engages with women, industry also has a major role to play in persuading women that engineering is an exciting career option.

’If industry really wants to transform its recruitment base it really has to look at how it speaks to young women,’ said Williams. ’People don’t commonly understand what an engineer is and there’s a stereotype that is “overall and an oily rag” [which is not] really reflecting the diversity of the career.’

Although there’s a general view that unreconstructed attitudes towards female engineers are on the wane, industry still needs to change. ’I think we’ve moved from a time where men really didn’t want to see women in industry,’ said Williams, ’but I think the culture of the industry is so absorbed that people who work in it perpetuate cultural stereotypes unconsciously.’ Davies agrees: ’The thing that really surprises me is the cultural change that still needs to take place in engineering companies. The government, companies and institutes need to work to make sure there is flexible employment, and that the culture of organisations are conducive to women working within them.’

Industry also has a role to play in persuading more women that engineering is an exciting career option

One particularly damaging view is the attitude towards maternity leave and the notion that it is not worth employing women of a certain age because they’ll leave to start a family. ’There’s an expectation that women will take career breaks and will be the main people within a family to bring in children,’ said Davies. ’There’s no reason the engineering industry can’t work around that the same way as the finance industry or retail, but there’s something perhaps in the culture of engineering organisations that they need to look at.’

Williams agrees and believes that a fundamental rethink on parental leave entitlement is required. ’If maternity and paternity leave was looked at as a whole so that there’s a parental entitlement to two people, that would enable men to become more involved in parenting and would mean that women weren’t paying the employment cost of being seen to be the one who was only looking after the children.’


Without concerted action on these kind of issues, Williams and Davies are convinced that initiatives aimed at driving up the number of female engineers will continue to have a limited impact. ’Gender diversity has to be placed absolutely at the core of strategic plans,’ said Williams.

’That way it becomes everybody’s business to think about diversity: to ensure that they’re attracting applicants from women, to monitor whether those applicants get taken on, and track the career progression of women and men up the career ladder, to make sure women aren’t getting stuck at a particular level.’

What’s at stake is the future of the UK’s engineering workforce. ’Half the companies we talked to [for the skills and demand in industry survey] are recruiting ,’ said Davies. ’One of the cries we hear is they’re not getting the engineers through to fulfil their needs. If you’re closing off virtually
half of the population then we’re losing an awful lot in the pipeline.’

What’s more, Williams believes it’s about more than just making up the numbers and hailed the ’diverse thinking that women will bring to complex issues’. Indeed, the UKRC’s recent Women Mean Business report draws on a number of studies illustrating that companies with the highest level of gender diversity in top management positions regularly outperform less diverse companies.

Cambridge’s Anne Dowling takes a simpler view. ’It’s always good to have a diverse workforce, although I think the abilities of women are pretty similar to men. It’s more a case of making sure we’re not missing lots of very talented people.’