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2 July 2014updated 09 Jun 2021 11:08am

Fixing the gender divide in engineering is slow, incremental work

Women are vastly under-represented in engineering and little has been done about it. National Women in Engineering Day is one of many initiatives to counter this imbalance.

By Ajit Niranjan

Picture an engineer. Really, try it. Do you see an oil-stained mechanic in a faded-blue jumpsuit? A slick corporate suit clawing for the next office promotion? Perhaps one of China’s powerful premiers at a global summit?

Whatever your preconceptions of an engineer are, chances are you thought of a guy. This isn’t surprising. Less than seven per cent of the Britain’s engineering workforce is female and this figure isn’t going to rise any time soon. At sixth form, girls account for just a fifth of all physics A-level candidates and, outside the classroom, they barely make up two per cent of construction apprentices. Engineering is a heavily male-dominated field.

For this reason the UK recently had its inaugral National Women in Engineering Day (NWED). If you’re not a female engineer the celebrations will probably have passed you by, but the event was an important one. Across the country engineers and technicians met up to highlight the positive achievements and opportunities made in an often-hostile profession. NWED set out to “celebrate the work that women do in engineering, and to showcase the great engineering careers that are available for girls”. 

Engineers have always been looking to improve their image and rebrand the profession as exciting and creative. This is invariably a good thing. However, there is a more specific problem at hand here – the overwhelming lack of diversity. Structural engineer Roma Agrawal raised this as a key issue facing the sector’s recruitment struggles during a TEDx talk in London last year.

[U]p to 50 per cent more graduates are needed in science and engineering in order to meet the needs of the economy; we have a vast shortage of people choosing to learn technical skills. Less than 10 per cent of engineers in the UK are women and less than 6 per cent are from minority backgrounds. So my question to you is, “Why aren’t there more engineers?”

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It’s a good question, and Agrawal is well placed to answer it. The award-winning physics graduate has worked on projects as diverse as refurbishing Harrods and designing London’s iconic Shard skyscraper, alongside extensive campaigning to get more young people – particularly girls – into maths and physics. She puts her flourishing career down to her open-minded upbringing – a childhood of Meccano and Lego:

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I can’t tell you how rewarding and satisfying it is to be able to say, “I helped design one of the most recognisable towers in the world, one that has changed London’s skyline”. No stereotypes were imposed on me as a child, and as a result a whole world of possibilities was available to me.”

Governments and NGOs have started working towards reducing the gender disparity in engineering, both in education and in industry. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the government’s been told we haven’t got enough engineers to do all the jobs it claims to be creating. Secondly, accessing all the untapped potential from female engineers could translate into financial gains and economic growth, plus long-standing inequalities and deeply-ingrained prejudices can be rectified on the side. It’s an obvious win-win for the coalition.

If the motivations behind the government’s enthusiasm are a little sketchy – which this article in the Guardian illustrates nicely – then at leasts the results are encouraging. NWED saw more than 80 events took place across the country to mark the 95th birthday of the Women’s Engineering Society, which has been helping women into careers in engineering for almost a century.

This isn’t a simple task. Institutional sexism has been crushing for many women starting out in this male-orientated field. Above undergraduate level, female engineers are reluctant to even apply for positions in academia or management, and are less likely to ask for promotions and payrises. Often, this is put down to lack of confidence in their own abilities.

Emerging research has suggested many successful women in science suffer from “impostor syndrome” – an irrational feeling that your personal achievements are the result of luck, rather than ability. Engineering student Eve Tymon knows this phenomenon is common amongst female students, but doesn’t think the tendency to appear reserved is just a confidence issue. By working with focus groups and her recently-founded Women in Engineering Society, she found many women felt they were under pressure to prove themselves without appearing overly ambitious:

You feel the need to outperform your male peers just to feel like you’re on par with them… As for downplaying success – drive, decisiveness, and ultimately success are all stereotypical male traits and obviously benefit men but can actually be damaging to women as they are seen to be ‘bossy’ or ‘selfish’. The solution lies in breaking down the gender stereotypes, and this problem does not only apply to engineers.”

For Tymon, initiatives to level the playing field like the Athena SWAN Charter are a good way to break down those stereotypes. The scheme hands out Bronze, Silver and Gold Awards based on plans, actions and sustained commitments to tackling under-representation of women in STEM academia. In the nine years since the Charter was first established over 300 institutions and departments have become members – five of which have been granted Gold Awards for “beacon activities in gender equality to the wider community”.

The Awards are not just token gestures; universities are aware that a healthy learning culture is a key part of attracting the best students, and are voluntarily seeking to become members. Athena SWAN manager Sarah Dickinson says there will be tangible benefits for progressive institutions.

Women applying for new jobs are looking for whether or not there’s an Athena SWAN Award. They know that the working practices and policies are going to be flexible, they will have been through a process evaluating them, and if they turn up and things aren’t right there’ll be some form of accountability.”

And it’s not just a bottoms-up approach. In 2011 Dame Sally Davies, the highest-ranking health advisor in the government, declared a Silver Athena SWAN Award a mandatory condition for receiving biomedical funding. This has spurred departments on to invest more energy into levelling the playing field.

Despite these successes, one criticism of the Charter is that university-level intervention comes too late for engineering. A lot of the damage is done during childhood years, and by the time students are choosing A-levels engineering is already often viewed as an unattractive career choice. This manifests itself in the lack of girls studying A-level physics, a prerequisite for most engineering degrees. Civil engineer Laura Dickinson, who’s preparing the Athena SWAN application for Bristol University’s Civil Engineering Department, emphasised the need for early level intervention in challenging gender stereotypes:

The major problem is that women don’t do physics A-level. That’s where we are at the minute. We need to try to get in there earlier and say, ‘Do physics A-level’ or encourage people earlier on, and encourage girls when they don’t think they can do maths and physics.”

This isn’t such an easy fix; targeting help earlier on requires careful planning and foresight. Dickinson shows me the campaign material she was recently given to put up at a Women in Engineering stall in Bristol’s students’ union: a poster of a bright pink cupcake being built up by cranes, next to a postcard about important role engineers play in designing hair-straighteners. She’s disdainful:

How many women are you putting off? Because that stuff would really revolt me. It’s almost like saying, ‘Why let men oppress you when you can oppress yourselves?’ So I don’t know what an 18-year-old or a 16-year-old would think about that. This is the problem, if you’re putting off as many people as you attract.”

To some, the notion of overturning long-held gender stereotypes may sound like a lost cause. Yet there is some hope that our perceptions of the problem, if not our ability to invent solutions, is adapting to an age where structural sexism is being increasingly recognised and challenged. In their recent report on female under-representation in STEM fields, grassroots NGO ScienceGrrl put forward the now widely-accepted view that institutions, not young girls, are at fault here:

Much of the handwringing … places the responsibility on girls. We argue that the education system and cultural environment are deeply flawed, putting up barriers for girls that are so familiar they have become invisible.”

As engineers, identifying the structural flaws inherent in the system is an essential part of solving the problem. The next step is trying to fix them. Progress is being made – just look at Professor Dame Ann Dowling, the mechanical engineer who’s about to become the Royal Academy of Engineering’s first ever female president – yet it’s slow-going. Dickinson feels our progress will continue in the future:

I am optimistic because things change. We have to remember that things have changed a lot, whilst recognising there’s still so many problems. It’s not just women in engineering, but with the world. Engineers want to fix all these problems, we want to save the world! And it’s recognising that things do change and that you can have an impact – but once you’ve fixed the easy things then you’re left with all the hard bits.”