A recent study conducted by non-profit organisation EngineeringUK found that just 12% of engineers were female. According to their study, this was because of girls dropping out of what they described as “the educational pipeline” at every point – despite generally performing better than boys in STEM subjects at school.
Unfortunately, a male-dominated environment can also lead to prejudices or obstacles later down the line. This further exacerbates the talent retention issue. So the question is – how can the industry attract and keep top female talent?
Attitudes to STEM in UK schools
Aged 11-14, at the beginning of senior school, EngineeringUK found that 46.4% of girls would consider a career in engineering. This was still far fewer than boys – 70.3% of which would consider becoming engineers – but nonetheless substantial. However, as girls get older, the story changes; by 16-18, just 25.4% of girls would consider a career as an engineer.
This is reflected in their choice of A-Level subjects. According to the same study, in 2018, just 22.2% of students starting A-Level Physics were female. But, despite the low uptake, girls tend to outperform their male peers: in all STEM subjects except Chemistry, more girls get A*–C grades than boys.
Considering that STEM subjects are so highly regarded by teachers and employers alike, it’s interesting that these old prejudices regarding “jobs for the boys” remain. This could possibly be put down to obstacles women encounter later down the line, discouraging younger talent from entering the field.
Breaking stereotypes and stigma
In a question submitted to Engineer Girl, an advocacy project set up by the National Academy of Engineers in the United States, the writer asked “Is engineering really as bad for women as I’ve read about?”. The fact that this question was submitted says it all; the idea that engineering is a negative environment for women is a fairly pervasive attitude.
This is, sadly, perhaps not unfounded. A male-dominated environment can lead to a lack of sympathy regarding many things women have to go through; for instance, having children. It’s not uncommon for women in engineering to report they’ve been encouraged to lie on their CV to fill gaps left by maternity leave or childcare.
Considering what women bring to engineering, it’s essential we, as an industry, break the stigma around taking time off to look after children. This isn’t only important to retaining talent, it’s key to attracting it. By creating an environment where women and girls aren’t asking, “is engineering really as bad for women as I’ve read about?”, we can help young girls realise their ambitions.
A changing landscape
However, to finish on a positive note, the situation is gradually changing. The proportion of women in engineering is growing: in 2017, 11% of the engineering workforce was female, whereas, in 2015, it was just 9%. As is clear, the percentage is edging up. Equally, female Fellows of the Royal Academy of Engineering increased from just 2% in 2006 to 4% in 2014.
Meanwhile, flexible attitudes to homeworking triggered by the pandemic could lead to a more favourable work-life balance for mothers in engineering. This would ensure we retain the talent we need – enabling us to innovate and develop for a more equal, inclusive tomorrow.