Women Must Help Engineer Better Economy

Dr. Nathalie Renevier discusses why so few women pursue engineering careers and how we can address the gender gap.

Despite the government spending millions on initiatives to increase female participation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects, women continue to be significantly underrepresented in industries such as engineering, manufacturing, and construction.

Women make up only 7% of engineering professionals in the UK, and according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, only 15.5 percent of first-year engineering and technology graduates in 2012-13 were female.

This underrepresentation is a serious threat to the UK economy.

Engineering is critical to the UK’s recovery and to maintaining the country’s competitive edge on a global scale. However, it is predicted that we will require 87,000 graduate-level engineers each year between now and 2020, and the higher education system currently produces only 46,000 engineering graduates, the majority of whom are male.

Furthermore, engineering is a rapidly evolving industry, and many of the jobs and specialties that will be required in 20 years’ time do not even exist yet. Interestingly, the UK has the lowest number of female engineers in Europe, indicating that it is a cultural and sociological issue rather than a physiological one.

The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) is committed to increasing the proportion of female engineering graduates. However, the groundwork must be laid much earlier, and we find that many young people have decided on a career in engineering long before they reach university age. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the age of 16 is a tipping point at which women lose interest in pursuing a career in engineering.

Schools and colleges should do more to make engineering careers more appealing to young female students. We need to pique girls’ interest in engineering in primary school and keep it going throughout their education. Science and technology can be linked to the real world of engineering from a young age, and the earlier we introduce the industry to women, the more relatable it becomes.

One of the reasons for the gender imbalance has been cited as a lack of understanding of the engineering industry, as well as the perception of engineering as a’male’ career path. There is certainly a perception that a career in engineering is dirty or unglamorous, and according to the IPPR, careers guidance does not do enough to counter the perception that engineering careers are ‘for boys.’

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Schools must educate girls about the numerous disciplines available in the industry, such as textiles and 3D conceptualization, which are often more appealing to females. We should also confront outdated stereotypes head on – there is potential for engineering firms to open their doors to schoolchildren so that students can see for themselves what a day in the industry entails. We also need to highlight local success stories; the North West, for example, was a cradle for the industrial revolution and is currently missing an opportunity to engage.

UCLan works with schoolchildren through our Young Scientist Centre (YSC), a cutting-edge lab in collaboration with the Royal Institution (Ri). The centre hosts interactive workshops for children with the goal of exposing them to a variety of career options involving science and engineering.

One workshop teaches children how to programme Lego robots to navigate around a giant Mars landscape, while another teaches them how to use a 3D printer to complete various engineering challenges. Through the YSC and similar initiatives, we can inspire and engage the scientists and engineers of the future by demonstrating the various and creative options available and giving them the opportunity to be real engineers for the day.

However, initiatives like this are insufficient on their own, and statistics from the Institute of Physics show that better teacher training and long-term partnerships between universities and colleges are the most effective ways to increase engineering intake, particularly female engineers.

The UK has a long way to go to address gender imbalance, but if industry, universities, schools, and colleges work together toward a common goal, we can break down harmful stereotypes, attract talented women into engineering, and repair the talent pipeline.

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Finally, we must begin early to encourage girls to pursue physical and formal sciences in school, as well as physics, engineering, and technology degrees at university.

There is a national obligation to focus talent pathways, beginning with education and ending with industry.

Dr. Nathalie Renevier is a senior lecturer in tribotechnology (coatings) and undergraduate maintenance engineering course leader at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan)

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Last Updated on December 29, 2021

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Indra is an in-house writer with a love of Newcastle United and all things sustainable.

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