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Raising the profile of women in engineering

With the first National Women in Engineering Day taking place on 23 June, we take a look at what government, industry, academia and professional bodies are doing to redress the gender imbalance and promote STEM careers to girls and young women.

The subject of getting more women into engineering is generally treated as a gender and diversity issue. And indeed, with only seven per cent of the engineering workforce female, according to the IET’s 2013 skills survey, there is a pressing need to redress this imbalance. There is also another compelling reason why the Government, businesses, schools and colleges and professional bodies need to encourage more women to pursue a career in engineering though: to tackle the severe engineering talent shortage in the UK that is consistently highlighted by research reports.

Help tackle the skills shortage

Attracting more women into engineering so that employers can draw from a much bigger talent pool is a business imperative. Dawn Bonfield, executive vice president of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), which is celebrating its 95th anniversary this year by launching National Women in Engineering Day on 23 June, also points to a number of other business benefits.

“Organisations have a diverse range of customers made up of men and women so need more women on their teams to better serve their customer base,” she says, adding that they are also missing out on skills that could make them more productive and effective. “Some companies are further along in their realisation of this than others.”

As well as holding a conference in London, the society is urging businesses, individuals, schools, colleges and professional bodies to get involved.

“We wanted to do something that empowers other people to do their own events and build momentum,” says Bonfield, a materials scientist from Bath University whose roles prior to joining the society included working as a materials engineer at AERE Harwell, the Citroen Research Centre in Paris and British Aerospace’s Sowerby Research Centre in Bristol. She believes that one of the barriers to more females following a career path in engineering is societal.

“A company will go into a school and deliver outreach activities and girls will enjoy it as much as the boys,” she says. “If a boy then expresses an interest in engineering he’s pushed in the right direction by parents and teachers etc and is on a wave but those external factors don’t necessarily exist for girls. What’s missing is that nudge in the right direction at the point of intervention.”

Current initiatives to support the growth of female engineers

There is general agreement that initiatives need to focus on getting more girls interested in STEM subjects and it is hoped the Government’s Your Life campaign, launched in May, will accelerate more participation in these subjects by both boys and girls. The campaign will see 170 businesses and institutions offer more than 2,000 jobs and apprenticeships. Organisations such as Airbus, Arup, Balfour Beatty, BP, BSkyB, Google, Ford, Microsoft, IBM, Nestle, Samsung, the Science Museum, the IET and the Royal Academy of Engineering are among those which have pledged support.

Alongside this, at apprentice level where female representation in engineering and manufacture is only 3.4 percent (according to figures from Unionlearn and the National Apprenticeship Service), organisations are trying to actively recruit more women. These include Jaguar Land Rover, which currently has 24 women on its apprenticeship programme and is looking to build on this in its 2014 recruitment campaign. It has unveiled a new initiative targeted at girls aged 10-14 years, developed with Birmingham Metropolitan College.

Called Girls in the Know, it aims to dispel outdated stereotypes associated with engineering and manufacturing, and is an extension of the company’s Young Women in the Know programme which has already engaged with more than 200 young women aged 16-18 years. Both complement its Engineering Network for Women and Women in Engineering Sponsorship Scheme that provide mentoring and practical support for females wishing to pursue a career in the automotive sector.

Meanwhile at master’s level, this year also sees the launch of the Women in Engineering programme at Brunel University, which is part of a national pilot to support female graduates to attain their full potential in the engineering profession. It begins this September and is offering 40 scholarships that will cover the MEng course fees and a living allowance. The university reports an “overwhelming response” so far.

The importance of roles models and mentors

Dr Tanya Morton is an application engineering manager at MathWorks and a member of the steering group of Cambridge AWiSE, the regional network for women in science, engineering and technology (SET) in both industry and academia and for women wishing to return to a SET career after a break. She welcomes initiatives that encourage more girls to take STEM subjects but also calls on women working in interesting STEM roles around the world to become more visible.

“More young women will venture into STEM subjects if we raise the profile of women in these traditionally male-dominated fields,” she says. “In order to develop more female role models for the future, we also need to encourage management teams to mentor and sponsor junior technical women in their organisations to help them in their career growth. It is up to both men and women to do what they can to help meet the increasing demand for engineers.”

The IET is playing its part in promoting and rewarding female engineers through its Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award. As well as prize money, the finalists are given the opportunity to meet influential people in the industry and undertake high profile STEM promotion work.  

But Morton believes there also needs to be initiatives to help retain women within engineering, such as support to manage careers during maternity leave and subsequent return to work.

“I had leadership coaching around the time of my maternity leave which enabled me to put in place a coverage plan, allowing me to step away from work with the confidence that my ongoing projects and the team were in good hands. This also facilitated a smooth transition back into work,” she says.

With this in mind, Bonfield emphasises that employers must understand that initiatives and activities that work for a woman early in their career will not necessarily be relevant as they progress through it: “You need different responses depending what the particular hurdle is at the time,” she notes.

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