Shining a light on the gender gap in engineering this International Women’s Day

To coincide with International Women’s Day (08 March), Denise Smiles, CEO of OMS, looks at the gender gap engineering is facing and what needs to be done to encourage more women into careers in the sector.

“The gender gap we face in engineering has always been present but what’s concerning is that it hasn’t improved. Back in 1919, one of the first editions of The Women Engineer magazine highlighted that only six per cent of engineers in the UK were female. While that figure is remarkable, what’s even more shocking is the fact that in 2014, that statistic remained the same*. In other industrialised European countries such as Germany, France and Sweden, women account for between 15 and 25 per cent of all engineers, in the UK we continue to lag behind. 

“While this could be seen primarily as a feminist issue, the dearth of women in engineering is bad for business and represents a significant barrier to the UK’s future economic performance. Indeed, the Royal Academy of Engineering has estimated that 1.28m science, engineering and technology professionals are needed by 2020 to support the UK’s economic recovery.

"So, what’s to be done to improve this chronic problem? I believe that radical action needs to be taken urgently to address the shortage of untapped female talent in engineering. Four key areas deserve serious consideration:

1. Inspire early 

"Although pushing engineering from an early age in school is obviously important, we must look to influence and inspire children from an even younger age. From firemen (Fireman Sam), soldiers (Action Man) and even farmers (Old Macdonald), our desire to work in a specific role or industry can be defined from a very early age and the characters and media children are exposed to can shape their perceptions.

“We need to get children playing with toy chemistry sets and plastic workbenches to broaden their horizon and the media has a key role to play in promoting engineering. We should see more stories on ‘Newsround’ about engineering companies, as well as prioritising influential profiles in girls’ magazines on women in business to inspire readers to look beyond the immediate world around them. Too often the characters girls are exposed to fit within the traditional female stereotype and, while this is beginning to change, it’s not happening soon enough – let’s swap tiaras for tool belts every now and then to ensure all children, regardless of gender, get a good understanding and appreciation of what engineering is from an early age.

"Moreover, Dame Athene Donald, incoming head of British Science recently bemoaned the sexual stereotyping of children’s toys from an early age, where girls are given dolls and boys mechano. Let’s at least give boys and girls a real choice, was her plea to BBC Radio 4 listeners – and I have to agree!  

2. Remove the stigma 

"When people mention engineering, many automatically think of boring, dirty work. It’s an unappealing word – especially for women. Unfortunately, that puts a huge percentage of people off working in the sector – not just women!

"Engineering, however, isn’t boring. It’s a sexy industry with huge amounts of potential. Sony, for example, is an engineering company, as are Formula One teams or architectural firms; would you call that unglamorous? All manufacturing has elements of engineering associated – even the likes of Apple and Microsoft.

"Maybe we need to rename the industry – engineering doesn’t quite cut it. This would make jobs more appealing to women and make the whole industry more accessible.

3. Sell the wider sector 

"Think engineering means being an engineer? Think again! A huge percentage of the staff at OMS work in project management, technology development, marketing, HR, management, administration, logistics and other roles. What’s more, a high number of these are female.

"Why should we constantly focus on just inspiring women to become engineers? Instead, can’t we inspire them to work in the engineering sector?

"Very few of our staff are actually trained engineers, just talented people, good at their jobs, who want to work in a fast-paced and vibrant industry. Does working as a marketeer in oil & gas rule you out of the engineering sector? Of course not. So therefore, we simply need to inspire interest in the sector – not just the narrow path of being an ‘engineer’.

4. The quota conundrum… 

"While I don’t tend to like quotas in industry, preferring to promote people based on their skills and attitude, there may be an exception where women in engineering are concerned. It’s obvious that the UK, more than our European cousins, suffers from an issue of culture where female engineers are concerned. I think we do need to jolt our workplace culture to create a sea change in attitude. Short-term quotas could be used to kick start a new approach. Countries like Sweden have shown how this can work and I think we should look seriously at such a system in the UK.

“So, let’s use International Women’s Day as a platform to raise this issue once again, ensuring it’s one we keep centre stage until this imbalance is addressed for once and for all."

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