Women in Engineering
International Women in Engineering Day 2021
International Women in Engineering Day is an international awareness campaign to raise the profile of women in the sector. This year’s event is themed around Engineering Heroes. Today, as we look at engineering and focus attention on the amazing achievements of women engineers, it’s important to acknowledge the additional challenges women still face within the sector.
Looking around, the examples of pioneering work from inspiring female engineers make us wonder. If female representation in engineering were greater today, what more could we achieve tomorrow? How many innovations never were, for want of a more diverse workforce? Why does the sector historically skew so male anyway? And, most importantly, how can we boost female participation?
Engineering is an exciting industry to work in with amazing career opportunities. But are those opportunities available to girls? How are the industry attracting and accomodating girls in this exciting field of work? We take a look at how far female engineers have come and how we can continue making progress.
The Role of Women in Engineering
A snapshot of Britain during the Second World War gives the rare image of factories filled with women. Women carrying out engineering roles that were undertaken by men. The men were sent off to fight, so, in a time where skills were desperately needed, women were drafted in to build ships, aeroplanes and munitions.
Outside factories, they worked as mechanics and fulfilled a variety of technical roles. They operated and maintained transmitters to get vital information overseas. The Queen herself entered the forces as a mechanic and a military truck driver.
Most women, who had for years stayed at home as housewives were a very active part of the working world overnight. Fulfilling tasks that were ‘meant for men’. Not only did they make a sterling job of it, but they also relished the challenge.
A snapshot, that’s all it was. Historically, women have been underrepresented in engineering roles. Almost 75 years on from when women proved they could succeed in these roles, the issue continues.
Skills Shortages Today
Studies carried out by EngineeringUK show that only 12% of all engineers in the UK are female. This, despite them, comprising almost half of the workforce.
Women stepped in when there was a skills shortage due to men being on the frontline. Today there is still a glaring skills shortage. Exacerbated by the pace of technological advancement and in the era of Industry 4.0.
While it may be for a different reason, the foundations are the same – there are not enough engineers in the UK. Predictions show that 1.8 million new engineers and technicians will be needed by 2025 to meet current demand. But where are the women that could fill this gap in our sector?
A lack of diversity in the workforce is inherently problematic. It’s a business risk and a major missed opportunity. According to research from McKinsey, “companies in the top quartile for diversity are 15-24% more likely to outperform their peers on earnings before interest and taxation (EBIT) margins than are companies in the bottom quartile.
In UK and US data, we found companies with more than 30% women on their executive teams were almost 40% more likely to outperform on EBIT margins than those with 10-30% women executives.” The proof is there. More women mean more business, which is vital for financial stability and economic recovery.
Yet despite all this, women are still scarce in the engineering sector, which begs the obvious question, why?
“In UK and US data, we found companies with more than 30% women on their executive teams were almost 40% more likely to outperform on EBIT margins than those with 10-30% women executives.”
Why the Lack of Women in Engineering?
A National Statistics report, Further Education and Skills, England: 2018/19 academic year, shows the scale of the issue. Looking at the figures for apprenticeships in the Construction, Planning and Built Environment sector, we see that, of the 22,533 apprentices that started out, 21,081 (94%) were male and a mere 1,452 (6%) were female. This is mirrored in the Engineering and Manufacturing sector, with 59,968 starts – 55,227 (92%) male and 4,741 (8%) female.
These findings bring the divide of men and women in engineering into stark relief. More so when compared to the figures for all sectors: 393,375 apprenticeship starts – 196,269 (50%) male and 197,106 (50%) female. Here, women have the edge over the majority.
Of course, the average also considers sectors with male underrepresentation. These include Health, Public Services and Care, with 97,715 starts – 77,388 (79%) being female and only 20,327 (21%) being male.
The issue remains undeniable, though. In the Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME) industry, women are less present than men.
It’s hard to comprehend how education and industry can fail to embrace gender diversity to such a level. More so, when girls prove higher achieving in engineering fields of study in education. The Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) Campaign reports that more girls get A*–C grades in STEM A-Level subjects than boys, except for Chemistry.
At the degree level, about 80% of female engineering students achieve a first or an upper second-class degree, compared with 74.6% of male students.
Nature vs Nurture
So why doesn’t this translate into more women entering engineering? The truth is that the responsibility lies largely with societal expectations. Whether consciously or not, steering girls away from engineering starts in their early years.
Whereas boys get toolkits and dumper trucks for birthdays, girls get pink tea sets. While this is becoming less so as the trend for non-gender-specific toys gains pace, the fact remains that there are things for boys and things for girls. And, very sadly, it’s prevalent through educational and parental influence too.
Two stories of young women who are forging their way into engineering careers ring only too true of the struggles faced by females.
Experiences of Young Women in Engineering
Rosie Wilson, who is due to complete her apprenticeship with Rosti Automotive later this year, overcame many barriers to get to where she is now. Without an engineering role model at home and being stereotypically steered towards hair and beauty at school, Rosie had to fight for her preference of subjects. She went on to achieve good grades in mathematics, design and technology, triple science, and a Level 2 in Engineering.
Instead of working in a beauty salon, Rosie is now on the pathway that, she hopes, will take her to a degree apprenticeship. Supported by her employer at Rosti, she loves her work and is a valued member of the team. A very different experience for her than when she was at school.
Micha Hannaby is currently doing an Electrical Assembly Technician Level 3 apprenticeship with Unison Ltd. She had the advantage of her dad being a maintenance engineer. He backed her to follow the path she wanted to at school. She too was being guided towards hair and cookery for GCSEs at school.
Working on the job with her dad on weekends, Micha learned the skills and motivation to embark on engineering in post-16 education. She eventually chose a Level 2 in Mechanical Engineering. As the only woman on her course, she faced discrimination. Left to sit on her own until she had proved her knowledge and skill.
That is a shocking reality for an 18-year-old today.
These two women were strong enough to fight back and follow their dreams. But statistics show that the vast majority don’t. Reports show that 46.4% of girls aged 11–14 would consider engineering as a career, compared to 70.3% of boys. This then drops to 25.4% as girls reach 16-18, compared to 51.9% of boys.
It is high time we question once and for all these long-held beliefs that keep women out of engineering and manufacturing.
How Can We Attract More Women to Engineering?
The evidence is there that society is still, implicitly, or explicitly, pushing women away from engineering. So how can we overcome these barriers?
One company that is bucking the trend is BMW Group. Their Girls Go Technical programme forms part of BMW Group’s commitment to creating a better balance amongst its workforce. Now in its eighth year, the work experience programme is designed to attract more girls to consider a technical career in the manufacturing industry.
Running during half terms, it is open to young women in Year 11 or above who are considering a technical apprenticeship. The participants spend the week at the heart of MINI and BMW’s UK production network. Attending the manufacturing site closest to their home region for in-depth work experience and touring the MINI Plant Oxford. Here they see MINIs being built.
On completion of the programme, the participants will have gained an insight into the manufacturing processes. They also experience the day-to-day challenges encountered by engineers and technical apprentices. Giving them a boost in their interview and job application skills.
Sophie Jackson, second year engineering apprentice at MINI Plant Oxford.
Sophie, a second-year Maintenance Apprentice at MINI Plant Oxford, first joined BMW Group through the programme.
“When we came to choose our work experience at school, my careers advisor suggested the Girls Go Technical programme. I was based at MINI Plant Oxford. We shadowed several different roles, and it was very hands-on. After the programme, I read up about the apprenticeship and decided to apply.
“The feel and look of the plant swayed my decision. There are robots everywhere, it felt very futuristic, and I wanted to understand more about how and why things work.
“My advice to any girls thinking about it would be: go for it. If you like STEM subjects, it’s such great fun. Yes, there are more men in the industry right now – and I was a little apprehensive about being a female – but everyone here is included. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. We’re here because we’re good at our jobs.”
Find out more information and apprenticeship opportunities on the BMW website.
There are several initiatives that are tackling diversity in engineering, including race, age, and disabilities, as well as gender.
The Department for Education (DfE) is behind the ‘Fire it Up’ campaign, which launched over a year ago. National TV and social media adverts continue to spread the campaign far and wide, fighting for increased awareness of the vast choice of apprenticeships open to society, no matter what age, gender, or background.
The Apprenticeship Diversity Champions Network (ADCN) is another government-led initiative that works to encourage underrepresented groups of society to consider apprenticeships.
This includes those with disabilities, women, and members of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. Over 40 employers are members of the network and pledge their commitment to apprenticeship diversity.
Enginuity is proud to be a key player in the fight to eradicate the gender imbalance in our sector. An excellent role model for others, Enginuity boasts an executive team where three out of five members are women. Its board has seven female members out of twelve.
Empowering women to enter, thrive and lead in our sector is a message we want to broadcast as far as possible. Working together with employers, educators, and policymakers, we want as many engineers as possible to be given the opportunity to change their world and ours. That means maximising the number of women, as well as men, who enter our sector.
While work is being done to address gender diversity issues in engineering, here at Enginuity, we are calling on employers, educators, and policymakers to make this gender gap a priority.
We remain dedicated to providing the solutions that are needed. The pathways and qualifications are there – what is needed is more initiatives and a change in mindset to encourage more women into the sector.
By working together to address this gap in the industry, we will also be addressing the skills gap. The result will be a stronger workforce, and industry, moving forward in a more inclusive manner.
This article was first published in EAL’s Reveal Spring 2020 publication. All figures were correct at the time of publication.
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