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Comment: Tackling the tragedy of engineering's missing women

National Women in Engineering Day has come round again, but if firms really want to tackle skills shortages they need to take action throughout the year.

I’m very fortunate to be an engineer. Statistically, given that I’m a woman, it was unlikely to happen, but because I have strong self-belief and had access to excellent work experience, it did. Other women aren’t as fortunate. National Women in Engineering Day, which comes round on 23 June 2016, is designed to explode myths about women in engineering, but the messages it sends aren’t for one day only. If companies want to overcome future skills shortages, they need to be inspiring girls all year round.

It is well understood that there are insufficient UK engineers to sustain companies, yet we seem unable to work on the most obvious solution, which is to mobilise the half of the population who are excluded from this amazing career.

The proportion of women in the engineering workplace has remained stubbornly low. At 6 per cent the UK has the lowest proportion of female registered engineers and technicians in Europe, and indeed, pretty well the whole of the developed world.

When I was at school, like many young girls I was interested in maths and science and enjoyed finding out out how things work. When I was 14, an enlightened careers adviser suggested I look at engineering; I did work experience in a local turbine factory and loved it. But I remember that when I told some friends I wanted to be an engineer, their response was, “Helen, you’re really clever - why do you want to be a car mechanic?”

I was the only girl in my A-level physics class; I think that was perhaps because physics had a reputation for being difficult and that put off other girls who hadn’t grasped the vision of what it could lead to. Again and again, having been given an insight into engineering was vital in keeping me focused on pursuing it as a career.

When I was 17 I took part in a Headstart summer school at the University of Bradford set up by EDT, an organisation that delivers more than 30,000 STEM experiences for young people around the UK each year. This was a great way to reinforce my idea that engineering was the career for me, and also to get some experience of what university life would be like.

Before starting my degree course I undertook a ‘Year in Industry’, also organised through EDT, which confirmed that I would enjoy the day-to-day work of an engineer and was crucial in enabling me to get the most out of my course because I had seen how the theory is applied in practice.

Note the recurring theme: it wasn’t enough that I had an enquiring mind and liked maths and science; the thing that really kept me on track to an engineering career was having been inspired with a vision of engineering through work experience. That’s why I’ve been a STEM Ambassador for the past nine years and often attend school career days, run Saturday Science masterclasses and organise an annual inter-school maths competition. I particularly enjoy working with 9-14 year olds as I think that this is the age group where most career choices are formed.

I am planning to be very active on National Women in Engineering Day; it’s a great opportunity and I hope most engineering companies will get involved. More than this, I hope they understand the crucial impact of engineering work experience for girls at school age and commit to getting more involved.

It’s not as resource-intensive as many believe, as organisations like EDT have off-the-shelf programmes that can be implemented, while existing activity can be sharpened up through the Industrial Cadet accreditation.

The best way of inspiring girls into engineering is to let them see it in practice and meet mentors and role models through work experience. Only in this way can they challenge the idea that “engineering isn’t for girls”. Only in this way will we get sufficient girls into engineering to close the future skills gap.

Helen Cavill is a chartered engineer and process improvement manager at M&H Plastics. She won the Women’s Engineering Society prize at the 2015 IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards.

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