MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Tue 23-Jun-15 11:22:00

Guest post: "We need to ask why women aren't choosing engineering"

Today is National Women in Engineering Day - here, Caroline Dinenage looks at what is being done to challenge gender stereotypes and encourage women into the industry

Caroline Dinenage

Minister for Women, Equalities and Family Justice

Posted on: Tue 23-Jun-15 11:22:00


Lead photo

"The UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in Europe - fewer than 10%"

I am no stranger to 'male-dominated industries'. After setting up my own manufacturing company, I never got used to feeling like the stranger in the saloon at trade shows filled with men, or to correcting people who asked me where the boss was. And from there I moved into politics – another field where men have historically ruled the roost, although women are increasingly, and crucially, making their presence felt.

Today is National Women in Engineering Day. It is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate women in engineering, and to showcase the many achievements of women in this sector. But with women still so under-represented in engineering, I also see it as an important occasion to think about what we can do, as government, as business and as individuals, to help redress the balance in the sector.

The UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in Europe - fewer than 10%. We need to ask why young women aren't choosing these fascinating careers and what the barriers are which prevent or discourage them.

This is not just an issue of diversity. According to the Pearson/CBI Education and Skills Survey 2014, 39% of firms looking for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) skills and knowledge already have difficulties recruiting staff, and over half expect to have problems in the next three years. Faced with this shortage, it would be ludicrous from a business perspective too, not to take advantage of the huge amount of talent amongst our women and girls. This is something that I, and the Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, Nicky Morgan, are very passionate about supporting.

Girls need to be able to choose from the broadest range of careers, and not feel they will be funnelled by society's conventions into particular roles.

The first step is to encourage girls to keep studying STEM subjects at school and university. It's a huge shame that while as many girls as boys achieve the top grades in maths and science at GCSE, far fewer girls progress to A level. Only 19% of those who achieve an A* in GCSE physics, for example, continue to A level, compared with about half of boys. And this pattern continues at university, with women taking up only 14% of engineering places.

This is why the government is supporting the Your Life campaign, which aims to boost the number of young people taking A level physics and maths by 50% within three years, and to double the proportion of undergraduate engineering and technology degrees taken by women by 2030, including by connecting young people to key figures from industry who can help them on their way to careers in STEM. The campaign also asks business to take action to increase female participation in these sectors, for example by pledging to increase diversity on their apprenticeship schemes, or to initiate women's networks within their companies. Over 200 organisations have signed up to date.

Part of the issue is entrenched ideas of 'male' and 'female' careers, which we know have already formed when children are at primary school. Girls need to choose from the broadest range of careers, and not feel they will be funnelled by society's conventions into particular roles. Young women tell us they value their parents' support when making choices about education and careers, but we know that parents do not always feel equipped to help them navigate these crucial decisions. For this reason we recently published a guide for parents, Your Daughter's Future, to provide information on the range of choices girls face in thinking about their future careers, and to support parents to challenge gender expectations.

It's also important that young women have strong role models to attract them into the sector. People like Roma Agrawal, one of the inspiring structural engineers who worked on the Shard and Barb Samardzich, the Chief Operating Officer for Ford of Europe. The government also funds STEMNET's STEM Ambassadors programme, which sends over 30,000 volunteers working in science, engineering and technology into schools across the UK to inspire young people – and it's fantastic that 40% of them are women.

These programmes, as well as the excellent work being done by all the organisations involved in National Women in Engineering Day, will ensure that more girls have the knowledge, skills and confidence to fulfil their potential in the engineering sector. Initiatives like these are crucial to make sure that girls are able to benefit from the many and varied opportunities the engineering sector offers, and that the engineering sector can benefit from the widest possible talent base. The UK needs to recruit 83,000 new engineers every year over the next decade in order to remain competitive – this is talent we can't afford to ignore.

By Caroline Dinenage

Twitter: @cj_dinenage

CalmYoBadSelf Tue 23-Jun-15 12:17:35

There needs to be more done to raise the profile of engineering generally, to make it more attractive to all, not just for girls. My DH, DF and DB are all engineers, al highly qualified and yet accorded far less respect than doctors, lawyers and other highly trained professions

Some years ago there was a poll on "Britain's most famous engineer", the winner? Brunel? Stephenson? No. The result from the great British public was Kevin Webster from Coronation Street. Therein lies the problem, engineers are seen as mechanics and tradesmen, nothing wrong with those jobs but they do not reflect modern engineering and are even less attractive to girls than boys

Engineerwhy Tue 23-Jun-15 12:21:21

I agree with the post above, and I would like to add that in my engineering field, we are close to 50/50 female to male. However we rarely get any interesting from UK graduates to join us and nearly all our young engineers are from abroad.
From my university year, very few people are still working in engineering, a lot of people have gone into finance and project management.

Engineerwhy Tue 23-Jun-15 12:21:42


CMOTDibbler Tue 23-Jun-15 12:38:39

I agree that the real world application of STEM subjects in general need to be better promoted. As a physicist, I get a bit annoyed that when its a 'women in science' discussion, that the same academics get trundled out with no one who uses their science in industry/healthcare or whatever. I was lucky that I found an area that I love, and that has given me an amazing career - but that no one ever knows exists!

Francemaxedout Tue 23-Jun-15 12:48:06

My daughter wants to do engineering. She knows what she wants to do now at 12. She can't join any STEM school or technical school until 14 and she's incredibly frustrated by that .

museumum Tue 23-Jun-15 12:58:11

I have a degree in maths and physics and yet I would say I still had very little idea at the start or end of my degree what an engineering career would involve on a day to day basis or what the routes into the career are. I think that is the issue for many girls.
I still don't know for example if there's a post-graduate route into engineering? Or whether it depends on the type of engineering.
Tbh. I don't think it's just girls who don't know much about the job, but I knew boys who said "I want to be an engineer" as the answer to adults asking annoying questions and it met with approval and support so became a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Engineerwhy Tue 23-Jun-15 13:05:01

I stumbled on this video a while ago which I think would be nice to show to undecided teens:

Athousandtrees Tue 23-Jun-15 13:07:14

I am a civil engineer and work for a MASSIVE company that has offices through the UK. In my particular office there are no female senior engineers, two female graduate engineers and no female technicians, this is out of an office of over 80 people.

I personally work out on site and prefer that role, but I feel that (male) bosses are scared to send girls out on site because they see them as little frail things that couldn't cope with the banter. This is not true and I have always been welcomed on site.

I think there needs to be more focus from ladies in top jobs to mentor and help junior employees reach higher levels.

pearpotter Tue 23-Jun-15 13:16:36

Chicken and egg isn't it? More women will equal more women. It's always harder to be the trailblazer.

ErrolTheDragon Tue 23-Jun-15 13:35:26

Ah, you wait ages for a girls in STEM thread and then two come along at once! grin But good this one is explicitly on engineering.

As has been said upthread, engineering isn't sufficiently recognised and understood in the UK. My DH and I are scientists but we're going through a learning process with our DD. She started saying she wanted to be 'a builder' when she was about 3 - meaning 'someone who makes things' rather than a brickie. I think she became a feminist in yr1 when a teacher told her to think of another choice for 'what I want to be when I grow up' because 'girls can't be builders'. Fortunately she at least had me to show that girls most certainly can do maths, science and software, so didn't buy that for a moment!

So - she's going to be doing the under-represented quartet of A-levels (maths, FM, physics and computer science) and is intent on electrical/electronics engineering as a degree/career. Unfortunately funding cuts have pretty much wiped out DT at her school - she'd wanted to do systems& control but they're not running it, but at she least was able to do electronic products GCSE, it's not going to be available for subsequent years beyond ks3 sad. So - she's already started talking to the teacher about helping with the yr7&8 STEM club - she is quite passionate that other girls should also be enthused by physics and electronics. The school is really good for providing this, and things like attending Big Bang, Go4Set and Crest awards. And because it's a girls' school, it's 100% clear that these activities are for girls.

Can I also make sure that anyone who's got a kid interested in this area knows about the Smallpiece Trust - we didn't find out about it till relatively late but DD went on a residential course last year which she thoroughly enjoyed (I think she said it was something like 20% girls but wasn't fazed by the lads and perfectly confident to hold her own in mixed groups).

ToysRLuv Tue 23-Jun-15 14:27:27

I sure as hell wished I had had any interest at computer science/engineering. I am a staunch feminist, but hated maths and physics and found them extremely boring. I think it was the "there is only one right answer to this question and if you don't know it, don't even try to bullshit" thing. I enjoyed subjects where a bit of personal yhinking/or bullshitting was actively couraged..

ToysRLuv Tue 23-Jun-15 14:28:35

Scuse the typos..

Bilberry Tue 23-Jun-15 14:39:46

Our primary school recently was part of a project to build a car/cart and race it. I always feel mixed about that sort of thing as it involved a tiny number of children (8) in a large school. But more depressing was only one girl was involved. I am sure lots of girls would have loved to have been involved but were already up against peer pressure. Nerdy girls (I was one) are far less likely to pushed to be involved than boisterous boys for whom this has some street cred. This problem starts very early in a girls life.

CakeUpWall Tue 23-Jun-15 14:51:03

DD (13) aspires to be an engineer in a very specific (currently predominantly male) area. I have little doubt that she will achieve her goal as she is so bloody stubborn.

DS1 is studying engineering at a top university. The intake in his year group (at his college) is 50% female. He assures me that on his course, gender has so far been so irrelevant that is has not been mentioned. Only one of his lecturers is female, though. Presumably this is a generational issue, and the balance will gradually be redressed over time?

BumgrapesofWrath Tue 23-Jun-15 15:45:38

Having just left the engineering industry, I would have to say I'd be reluctant for any daughter of mine to follow in my footsteps.

I got on just fine when I was young and single, and felt very little discrimination. Once I became a mother it was a different story, and was on the receiving end of workplace bullying (which came as a complete shock to me.)

So yeah, encourage your daughters to do this only if they are prepared never to have a child.

lynniep Tue 23-Jun-15 16:12:18

Is this still an issue? Do kids not get all the choices these days? Even back when I was at school (in the 80s) no-one ever suggested I didn't do engineering - or anything else for that matter. I did the subjects I wanted to do (A-levels were maths, physics and art).

No particular career paths were suggested to me in detail which was the issue really. I had no idea what any kind of job actually involved. I had no idea in fact until I'd done two years of a mech. eng degree and spent a year out working on a chemical plant. Even during the degree no-one ever explained what it was we'd actually be doing, because mostly it was theory, not practical.
I think raising the profile of engineering is a great idea - to everyone. I didn't end up in engineering because I didn't enjoy it, simple as that. I ended up in another male dominated industry (IT) but to be fair the numbers seem to be evening out.

Lilymaid Tue 23-Jun-15 16:18:00

DH works at a technology firm which has a greater than average percentage of women engineers/materials scientists. He mentors those who are interested in becoming chartered engineers and encourages those who he thinks are particularly promising to be involved in more than just working in the office 9-5. He's found that the women employed there tend to be much brighter and have more potential than the men.
(But there are still people there who moan about women taking maternity leave and make mildly sexist remarks.)

ErrolTheDragon Tue 23-Jun-15 16:46:12

The problems of combining a career with motherhood surely aren't unique to engineering (or science) though. If there's a shortage of good engineers they're going to have to do something about retention and re-entry onto the career ladder, aren't they?

"there is only one right answer to this question and if you don't know it, don't even try to bullshit"
It's a pity you were put off at school by that perception, Toys, but maybe others are too. Well, when you get beyond school, for sciences there may only be one answer but the point is that you don't know what it is yet. And I'd guess there must be a lot of engineering (and certainly in computer stuff) where there isn't one right answer, the challenge is to come up with better solutions or a whole new paradigm.

newgirl Tue 23-Jun-15 16:51:45

I have a bright teen who is excited about a stem workshop today. I know so little about engineering and am delighted her school is offering this. Who knows what she will decide. It is worrying to hear about poor maternity attitudes and sexist comments from those with recent experience.

Lancelottie Tue 23-Jun-15 16:52:05

'There's only one right answer' is exactly what I liked about maths and physics!

BTW, Errol, the organisation you mentioned is Smallpeice -- not picking at your better-than-theirs spelling, but it might be easier to google it that way.

ErrolTheDragon Tue 23-Jun-15 17:08:17

Thanks for the correction! smile The odd thing is I remember my DD pointing that out to me and I was thinking about it even as I typed. confused

ShadowFire Tue 23-Jun-15 17:46:22

The thing I liked about things like maths and physics was that there was a right answer. The feeling I got at school with humanities subjects seemed to be that just about any answer, even a wrong answer, was fine if you were good at bullshitting.

With engineering though, there usually is more than one right answer. The important thing is that the system you're designing works to achieve the end goal, but there can be any number of different ways to get there.

museumum Tue 23-Jun-15 17:54:38

The thing I love about maths and physics at school is there may only be one right answer but you get to work it out from scratch by yourself in the exam. So satisfying. Very little to memorise compared to other subjects smile

Cathpot Tue 23-Jun-15 18:33:57

I am a science teacher and so my daughters are interested in science because that's what I am enthused about. Today a New Scientist magazine was open on the table and so they ended up asking me about bioengineered limbs which I can talk about in reasonable detail as reading about science is something I do for pleasure- even if I am not in involved in active research. I can't however talk at length about classical music or art, and my history is wobbly and I don't speak another language etc etc. Schools are vital in instilling enthusiasm for science because parents will play to their own strengths and that's not necessarily going to include science.

At my last school we had a hugely fruitful collaboration with our local university. We went up there for workshops and put on a mock science conference for year 9s to report on experiments which they had designed and carried out independently. This involved the happy coincidence of having- an enthusiastic outreach worker from the uni , a keen teacher (me) who crucially was part time and had the capacity to take on extra work, a female researcher very keen on getting more kids interested in science courses and willing to help me write a project proposal to track down funding , and a wider staff willing to release 2 top sets of year 9s for 3 days of the timetable. Also crucially, we could walk from our site to the university site and didn't need to pay for transport.

There are funding schemes out there and great STEM ambassadors but in my experience they aren't always set up for the constraints of secondary schools now in terms of time, money and transport.

We also had a year 8 science fair where lots of interesting employers turned up including skin care developers, food scientists, nurses, wildlife scientists etc. This was organised by a local organisation funded by a variety of sources whose year to year survival was always uncertain. What I am trying to say I think is that outreach is very important in showing kids what's out there but it seems entirely down to random factors such as the staff you have, the funding at any one point in time etc It takes time and effort to organise these things and teachers generally at the moment are flat out and tired. I think there is scope for making access to these sorts of things much easier for schools in a number of practical ways eg get the STEM ambassadors or the Royal Society representatives to come and sit in the preproom at lunch and talk through the options and make connections. Emails inviting staff to evening presentations don't reach enough people. Lots of opportunities are lost, as well meaning people don't really understand how secondaries work. I could rant at length about this so I'll stop there!

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