Engineering continues to be an industry that is heavily male dominated. Statistics published by The Women’s Engineering Society (WES) expose that women account for only 21.8% of the UK engineering workforce, with the UK having the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals compared to the rest of Europe. As Britain prepares to build back better and level up, now is the time to create a level playing field in our key sectors of industry; we must attract more women to work in engineering and deconstruct the gender disparity. So, how do we encourage more women to see engineering as an exact science for them and boost the number of females entering the field?
In this article, with support from the talented female engineers at AECOM and BSP Consulting, Key Account Manager Lauren Banks explores what it means to be a women engineering and how we must continue to strive for gender equality in the industry.
Break Down the Gender Stereotypes
The number of women choosing a career in engineering is on the rise, but the numbers are still concerningly low. Growing up, we are accustomed to societal gender stereotypes from childhood, with old fashioned notions of boys engaging in more physical and boisterous activities, playing with cars, trains and planes or science and construction kits; whilst girls play quietly and calmly with domesticated-themed toys such as dolls, vacuum cleaners and role-play kitchens or beauty related make-up and dressing up kits. There is little doubt that a perception is created in a young and impressionable mind, that their place in society is pre-determined and that boys grow up into young men who are destined for masculine manual roles, business management, technical or scientific positions; a stark contrast to little girls who are expected to grow into young women who will have clerical or domestic roles. It is time to address gender inequality and challenge these outdated clichés. Girls must be empowered to see a future where they can be a part of one of the broadest industries in the UK, using their creativity and problem-solving skills to design innovative products or tackle some of the world’s most high-priority challenges. There is some way to go to reverse the perception that only men possess the skills and capabilities required to add value to the engineering sector and much work to be done to change the rhetoric surrounding women who want a career in this profession; moving away from associative masculine and negative dialogue, serving only to undermine the importance and merit that women can bring to this advancing and fast-paced industry.
Why Do We Need More Women in Engineering?
Engineering is a huge industry. One of the most appealing things about a career path in this sector is the diversity and choice of roles. Engineering is an all-encompassing term used to describe the area of science and technology concerned with the design, build, and use of engines, machines, and structures. Branches within engineering range from aerospace, architecture, project management, design, electronics to civil engineering, structural engineering and many more. Almost 5.7 million people work in engineering in the UK, accounting for just over 19% of all UK employment. It is an industry with an ageing workforce, with many engineering professionals close to retirement, making the skills gap one of the biggest challenges the sector faces. It is crucial to recruit more people into the field, to train, qualify and replace the skills and experience that is lost when skilled people retire. Women can play a crucial role in combating the talent shortage by contributing their mathematical and problem-solving skills and applying their leadership, project management and risk control skills to any number of the exciting opportunities available within a career in engineering. So, what needs to change to create an inclusive and accessible environment within this industry that will entice more women?
Jennifer Cox, Electrical Engineer at AECOM, a Procure Partnerships Professional Service Supplier, is an award-winning female engineer. Jennifer is the most recent winner of the 2021 Best Young Engineer and was previously awarded Graduate of the Year 2020. She continues to support and encourage women into pursuing a career in engineering.
Jennifer Cox commented: “I became an electrical engineer after completing my degree in building service engineering and I love that my job changes and has different challenges every day across a variety of projects and sectors. When I was at school and first decided to go into engineering, I remember being told that I would have to work harder going into a male dominated industry. So, I am inspired everyday by the women I work with and be mentored by and now get to promote STEM learning in schools for future female engineers”.
Gender Equality & Flexibility
The Royal Academy of Engineering conducted the first survey of its kind into the gender pay gap in the engineering profession. Salary data from nearly 42,000 engineers working in the UK across 25 different companies was analysed and the report identified that whilst the gender pay gap for engineers in the sample was smaller than the gender pay gap for UK workers in general, the key finding was that the gender pay gap for engineers is largely due to under representation of women in more senior and higher paid roles. This would suggest that in addition to the challenges faced in recruiting women into the profession, more work needs to be done to improve the retention and progression of women already in the field to promote them to more senior positions in order for women to break through the glass ceiling and see engineering as a long-term and rewarding career.
Another barrier is the unacceptable behaviour and unequal treatment that is still prevalent in the engineering industry. Female engineers continue to face high levels of discrimination in the workplace. According to a study carried out by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers called ‘Stay or Go? The experience of female engineers in early career,’ it identified that 63% of the women surveyed in engineering experienced inappropriate behaviour or comments, which is three times more than women in financial or medical professions. They reported 40% of female engineers said they were not treated equally and 60% said it was easier for men to progress in their careers.
Engineering companies must develop a strategy to eradicate gender inequality and discrimination in the industry and work closely with higher education establishments to ensure STEM subjects are encouraged and promoted to female students in a positive and engaging way. There are other areas that can be improved that would see huge benefits for women, such a more flexible working culture. Engineering companies often overlook flexible working arrangements in favour of more traditional working patterns which can make a sustainable work-life balance difficult for women. Accommodating a flexible approach, such as part-time or job-share positions can enable more women to access a career within this sector.
Routes into Engineering
Working in engineering is a varied and exciting career, where one day you could be working in the office and the next you could be on site at a high-profile engineering project, such as Google UK HQ or HS2. The engineering and manufacturing sector is dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) which creates a wealth of employment opportunities and graduate training programmes.
There are several routes into a career in engineering, ranging from graduate options where you study a degree course within a chosen field, an apprenticeship programme where an engineering company will support and train a school leaver or an internship opportunity where an engineering company will offer a summer placement to help college students gain practical industry experience.
There are an increasing number of targeted STEM initiatives to encourage more women to opt for an engineering career path, such as The Institute of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) annual Young Woman of the Year award, National Women in Engineering Day and the #ILookLikeAnEngineer social media campaign; all designed to raise awareness that women are needed in engineering and to promote inspiring female role models.
The Future Role of Women in Engineering
The WES statistics show that only 25.4% of girls aged 16-18 years old would consider a career in engineering compared to 51.9% of boys, and girls and women make up less than 18% of higher apprentices in engineering and manufacturing, so there is still a challenge to change the mind-set, overcome gender inequality hurdles and promote the engineering industry as an attractive career option to women. Encouragingly, in all STEM A-Levels subjects, except Chemistry, more girls get A*- C grades than boys, including Further Maths, Maths, ICT and Design and Technology; a further example of why we need more women to choose to enter the engineering industry.
Procure Partnerships Framework UK is proud to be an equal opportunities employer (EOE), specialising in Construction Frameworks and Procurement Frameworks to deliver professional services and contractor partners for the public sector. We know first-hand the benefits of having more women in traditionally male-dominated industries as most of our leadership team are female. We work with several partners who are committed to re-shaping and diversifying their workforce to onboard more female talent and create a more inclusive environment. Charlotte Taylor is a fantastic example of a young female apprentice who has recently embarked on a HNC structural technician apprenticeship with our supplier BSP Consulting. Approximately 16% of staff at the civil and structural engineering firm are women, from technician to associate level. With a GCSE in engineering, Charlotte was one of only two girls in a class of 25. She hopes more females in the future choose to study STEM subjects and pursue a route into engineering, and that events like Women in Engineering Day will inspire more women and girls to consider it as a career option.
Charlotte commented further: “I had engineering on my radar but not specifically structural engineering,” she explains. “I don’t know any girls who have gone into engineering but my teacher at GCSE was a woman and she always used to push women in engineering and was an inspiration to encourage girls to consider engineering as a career.”
“When I spoke to my friends, none of them had ever really considered engineering as a career,” adds Charlotte. “It was not an option that they had thought about. When you are coming into an environment that’s predominantly male, it can be off putting for some people. I never saw it as a problem.
“In the short time I’ve been at BSP everyone has been ready to help with any questions and I’m finding it enjoyable”.