Professor Danielle George, professor of radio frequency engineering and Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning at the University of Manchester, #BetweenUsWeCan judge and supporter. Credit Danielle George.

Women's engineering competitions: why do they matter?

With another women's engineering competition deadline looming, we ask if there's still a place for positive discrimination in 2016.

In the wider and much talked about context of the engineering skills shortage, the answer should be no, we shouldn’t target women specifically. We need to recruit more engineers full stop, regardless of their gender. According to EngineeringUK’s 2016 report, engineering and skilled engineers make a significant contribution to the UK economy, providing some £455bn to UK GDP with a £1.21tn turnover, employing 5.4 million people in the process.

However, the growing skills gap means we are not producing the necessary capacity or the rate of growth required to meet the forecast demand for skilled engineers and technicians by 2022. We urgently need to ramp up the numbers, offer up all the incentives, initiatives and competitions available and rescue the sector from its current trajectory, sending it into a triumphant, industrious orbit with a veritable army of diverse young recruits behind it.

Yet it isn’t quite working like that. Around the world, different stories are being played out, showing that other, somewhat nebulous factors are at play which can influence, distort, manipulate and sway either way across all boundaries and countries. Such weighty dynamics such as culture, ethnicity, education, religion and personal means can influence a person’s prospects from the get-go and within the world of STEM specifically, girls and women seem to be particularly susceptible.

According to the IET, women account for only seven per cent of the professional engineering workforce in the UK, and less than four per cent of all engineering technicians. Yet women represent 42 per cent of the overall workforce, a substantial talent pool that remains largely untapped by the engineering sector. Why so? Before we fall down the rabbit hole of gender bias issues in considering the nature of women in society, let’s look at some more statistics:

  • Last year’s IET report ‘Women in STEM – facts and statistics’ showed that 15.8 per cent of engineering and technology undergraduates in the UK are female. Compare that with India, where over 30 per cent of engineering students are women, despite the country being ranked 19th in gender equity among the G20 countries (from 'Engineering is a man’s field: changing a stereotype with a lesson from India', Scientific American)
  • The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10 per cent, while Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead with nearly 30 per cent, as quoted in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s 2013 Perkins’ Review of Engineering Skills
  • In the UK, the proportion of young women studying engineering and physics has remained virtually static since 2012, according to the National Centre for Universities and Business’ 2015 Talent 2030 Dashboard. The UK currently relies on inward migration for engineering skills: immigrants (European Economic Area (EEA) and non-EEA) account for 20 per cent of professionals in strategically important sectors such as oil and gas extraction, aerospace and computer, electronic and optical engineering, as reported by NIESR, Skilled immigration and strategically important skills in the UK economy, 2012
  • Enabling women to meet their full potential in work could add as much as $28 trillion to annual GDP in 2025, raising global economic output by 26 per cent over a business-as-usual scenario, according to the McKinsey Global Institute’s 2015 report ‘The power of parity’
  • The Institute of Physics’ 2014 research ‘It’s Different for Girls’ found that only around 20 per cent of A level physics students in the UK are girls and this has not changed in 25 years
  • Diversity matters: companies are 15 per cent more likely to perform better if they are gender diverse, so said McKinsey & Co in 2015.

The statistics reveal some surprises and definitely pose interesting questions. What other factors are at play in a country which supposedly creates so many opportunities for girls and women, yet the numbers demonstrate that recruitment into the engineering sector is so low? What is happening in other countries where you would perhaps expect to see the reverse?

‘Women in engineering: fixing the talent pipeline’, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, suggests there are key stages at which girls and women drop out of potential pathways into employment in engineering, characterised as ‘leaky pipelines’. Add to this the disparity in educational systems across different countries and you go some way in understanding why some countries are so much more successful than the UK in attracting women into engineering.

Then there’s the age-old conundrum of negative attitudes and perceptions that seems to be a particularly difficult nut to crack here in the UK. Engineering is still seen as a career for boys. Evidence points to the fact that teachers, careers guidance, work experience and families are guilty of not doing enough to debunk the myths and stereotypes surrounding this, and are sometimes even guilty of perpetuating them.

The key to getting more women into engineering is to make it an attractive option for girls from an early age, and to keep repeating this message throughout their education and in their lives outside of school.

Competitions, initiatives and programmes play a vital role in positively marketing engineering to girls and women. They can inspire and shape ambitions. High-profile company names and individuals add aspiration and prestige.

One high-profile company aiming to fuel the imagination of young, women engineers is Bosch, with the launch of its #BetweenUsWeCan campaign which is seeking to support efforts to improve gender diversity within engineering. The campaign includes an online competition looking for the best new applications of the Internet of Things. Three winners bag a year’s mentorship from Bosch and an exciting trip to Germany, visiting the company’s state-of-the-art Renningen and Reutlingen research and development facilities near Stuttgart.

Speaking about the campaign and its wider context, president of Bosch UK Steffen Hoffmann, said: “This campaign is about connectivity in the broadest sense, because at Bosch we are committed to bridging gaps: between people, between different technologies and between people and technology. With this single initiative we want to highlight the transformative potential inherent in the Internet of Things and the diverse engineering workforce that is required in order to fulfil that potential.”

The evidence is stark: in the UK there is a gender imbalance in the engineering sector. Diversity is crucial for innovation and for going some way to closing the skills gap in the UK. Combined efforts across education, careers guidance and encouragement at home will lessen the impacts that stereotypes have on shaping career aspirations and encourage more young women into engineering.

There’s also great value to be had in the kind of positive discrimination that engineering competitions offer.

As Hoffmann adds: “We have arrived at a pivotal moment in time and UK engineering needs the fullest range of ideas, skills and ambition to seize the opportunity. For many years there has been a discussion about the ‘skills gap’ in engineering, and this campaign is an opportunity to take a fresh angle on this. We want to not only recognise the many existing female engineers who are achieving great things, but also inspire a new generation to continue pushing back the boundaries of innovation. Between us, we can rise to these twin challenges, and that is why our campaign is called #BetweenUsWeCan.”

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