Britain needs to stop discouraging women from choosing engineering as a career

A new report suggests that women are lost to a potential career in engineering at the age of 16, when A-level and vocational subject choices are made – More needs to be done to challenge society’s clichéd attitudes and expectations of “masculine” and “feminine” career paths.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The UK is in desperate need of engineers. The higher education system is currently producing 46,000 engineering graduates per year - however, unless an additional 87,000 graduate level engineers graduate between now and 2020, we can expect that there will be a serious shortage in the near future. A new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), published last week, suggests that one way of closing this skills gap is by encouraging more women to opt for careers in engineering.

Men dominate the British engineering industry, with women accounting for only 7 per cent of the professional workforce and less than 4 per cent of engineering technicians. In fact, the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe.

The problem appears to manifest in childhood, long before a specific career path is chosen. Girls, more than boys, opt out of careers in engineering at the critical age of 16 by choosing A-Level and vocational subjects which do not meet the necessary entry requirements to move into an engineering career in the future. The report, supported by BP, suggests that the crucial subject choices made at 16 are shaped by cultural norms, and society’s long-held, clichéd attitudes and expectations of “male” and “female” career paths.

Geologist Angela Strank, chief scientist at BP, is one of very few women who joined the gas and oil industry in the early eighties, and she believes that there are often unhelpful perceptions about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers in society, and particularly engineering professions. “It’s seen as a male-dominated career and mainly one for fairly clever boys,” she tells me when I speak to her over the phone.

Traditionally, masculinity is perceived as strong and dominant, whereas femininity is viewed as passive and nurturing. Adherence to these gender roles could explain why men still outnumber women in so-called “manly” careers like politics, law enforcement and the STEM-related professions. While women outnumber men in care-related and nurturing professions, such as nursing and childcare. It could also provide an explanation for why, when it comes to selecting A-Level and vocational subjects, girls aged 16 continue to favour “feminine” subjects over “masculine” ones.

“There are too few girls who take the right STEM subjects at A-level, in particular physics,” Strank said. “About 72,000 girls achieved A* to C in GCSE physics in 2013, and only about 10 per cent of those actually went on to take physics at A-Level. We need to try and encourage more girls to follow through with the STEM subjects at A Level, to equip them to do engineering or STEM subjects at University if they would like to”.

The current skills gap could also be related to “science capital” – that is, a person’s understanding of, exposure to, and engagement with science and scientific careers, which is usually helped if they have a family member in a STEM-related occupation, for example. Last year, findings from an ASPIRES report showed that many people had a narrow perception of the variety of career pathways that STEM qualifications could lead to. It also showed that young people with an interest in studying STEM subjects beyond the age of 16, and young people who desired STEM-related careers, usually came from families with a medium or high science capital.

Deep-rooted misconceptions about “feminine” and “masculine” subjects or careers still exist, and are perpetuated both within educational institutions and in wider society. The insistent portrayal of engineers as “men in hard hats” might discourage girls and women from considering engineering as a viable career path; the same is true for other STEM-related professions traditionally viewed as “manly” or “boyish”.

"It’s really about the amount of knowledge and exposure that children have to careers in science and engineering,” Strank explained. “It looks as though, from the report, that the science capital of children in the UK is very unevenly spread. In fact, only 5 per cent of UK students are seen to have high science capital. Girls especially tend to have lower science capital, and it’s probably influenced in part by […] what society expects [of them]”.

The IPPR report recommends that positive action needs to be taken in order to show young people - especially those with low science capital - that STEM skills and qualifications are transferrable to a variety of occupations, and can also lead to diverse and exciting career paths. “The more teachers, educators, friends, and society in general know about the multitude of careers available […] in engineering, the more girls we’ll have coming through the talent pipeline to fill the significant skills gap we have in this area, in the UK,” Strank said.

Though, despite many efforts to combat these challenges, Dr Strank feels that there is a lot more that needs to be done, in order to attract more female talent into the engineering industry. “Although there are many good government and private initiatives […] to encourage more girls to consider STEM careers, these efforts are quite fragmented and not particularly coordinated, so they may be a little less effective than they could be”.

The report also stresses the importance of family encouragement, role models and mentors when it comes to shaping scientific aspirations in children. 68 per cent of young people aged 11 to 14 said they were influenced “a lot” by their parents when it came to career choices. “I think it’s very important for girls to have role models that they can look to, to inspire them. For me, there were several role models, including my father - an architect and engineer - and some excellent teachers at school who were very influential and encouraging […]. As well as some great programmes on TV about science, space exploration and natural history – I found that all very inspiring and exciting."

“There are an enormous number of different types of engineering careers [and] a multitude of options,” Strank continued. “They’re all very important and sometimes its hard to see what they are, especially when you’re at school […] and don’t have day-to-day contact with any of those activities. I would make use of any work experience or internships you can get, then you’ll really see what they do, and I think the perception would be quite different."

The report highlights the fact that gender stereotypes could have serious repercussions for the UK economy, and suggests that all people within society have a role to play in acknowledging this problem, as well as preventing its perpetuation. The types of toys given to young children, for example, can greatly influence their career aspirations. Debbie Sterling, who studied engineering at Stanford University, launched a KickStarter project last year to fund GoldieBlox - engineering toys specifically designed to appeal to young girls. Sterling aims to tackle the gender gap in STEM subjects, by inspiring girls from an early age to develop an interest not only in “pink princesses”, but male-dominated professions such as engineering.

Engineering is a well-paid profession, and the report suggests that by encouraging more women to opt for careers in engineering, and other traditionally male STEM industries, it could also represent an opportunity to reduce the gender pay gap. Dalia Ben-Galim, IPPR Associate Director, said of the new report's findings:

Misconceptions about engineering continue to influence who pursues a career in this field. Engineering is still considered by many as a ‘man’s job’, and is associated with a workplace culture that may put off prospective female workers. These attitudes pose real challenges when attempting to correct the gender imbalances in the sector. To help overcome these barriers in attracting greater female talent to engineering government, schools and business all have a role to play in influencing career choices, and aspirations – particularly at the critical point where school subject choices are made."