Young woman thinking

Let's debunk the myths that deter women from engineering careers

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Showing young people what a career in engineering is really about is the best way of tackling a gender imbalance that is contributing to skills shortages.

Forgive me, but there’s a large part of me that wishes we didn’t need International Women in Engineering Day (INWED). I wish that there wasn’t a need to point up the achievements of women engineers, because the fact that there are women engineers should be as commonplace as the existence of women in other professions: as doctors, lawyers or accountants, for example.

Sadly, there is an urgent need to advertise the fact that women can and do work in engineering, both in the UK and internationally. At less than 10 per cent, the proportion of women in UK engineering is the lowest in Europe, and it’s not just historical factors at work here; women make up only around 14 per cent of students currently on first-degree courses in engineering, so unless we tackle the reasons why women generally don’t pursue engineering careers, things aren’t going to change quickly. And we do need things to change, not just because of diversity concerns, but because otherwise our efforts to bridge the current and impending skills gaps in engineering will be much more difficult. If half of the school population are ruling out engineering as an option before they even leave school, then that’s half of our potential recruits walking out on us.

So why do young women, almost by default, opt away from engineering? As you can imagine, it is a much-researched subject and the reasons are complex.

As a starting point, there’s still a myth prevalent that physics and further maths are ‘hard’ subjects which, believe it or not, are best suited to ‘boy brains’. 

This is nonsense which INWED is trying to correct by showing that women have succeeded in engineering careers and that these subjects aren’t magically beyond their capabilities. INWED importantly also shows the types of role that different women engineers undertake, thus giving a new perspective to those whose mental image is still of garage pits and greasy overalls.

For many young women, though, engineering is simply a ‘hidden’ career. City & Guilds recently did an interesting study into career aspirations which indicated that young people’s careers thinking is ill-informed, and poorly matched to the actual opportunities of the projected labour market in 2020. Young people only consider a relatively narrow pool of jobs that represent 34 per cent of the available 2020 roles. They will typically choose jobs that they are commonly exposed to in life or in the media: teacher, doctor, sportsperson, TV presenter. A large proportion of real jobs are hidden to them, and they only consider jobs they have come across. Is it really a mystery why in 2013-14, 9,000 young women took up level 2 apprenticeships in hairdressing while only 80 women took up apprenticeships in engineering at the same level?

This is why I am so motivated to encourage workplace experience, strongly supporting business and education links within Unipart Manufacturing, and also delighted to take up an invitation from HRH the Prince of Wales to be an ambassador for Industrial Cadets.

The best way to get all our young people to understand what engineering has to offer is to show them. Industrial Cadets is a national quality standard for workplace experience and ensures that accredited courses have the right balance of features to give the student the insights and information they need. This makes life a lot easier for employers who want to play their part in attracting young people into engineering. In meeting the standards framework, they know that they are delivering what the young people need, while shaping the activity in a way that suits the business.

So let’s all get behind International Women in Engineering Day and tackle this unnecessary gap. Let’s get the message across to young women that engineering is not harder, or more suited to men, than other professions. Let’s use INWED to promote what we do, both by highlighting women in engineering and by holding events that show what engineering is all about.

Above all, however, let’s make sure every engineering company large or small gets on board to deliver work experience to local schoolchildren. Then they will get a chance to see our ‘hidden’ profession and understand what it has to offer. Industrial Cadet accreditation makes this easy and makes sure that what we deliver is what young people need to see.

Carol Burke CBE is managing director, Unipart Manufacturing Group. She is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and one of HRH the Prince of Wales’s Ambassadors for Industrial Cadets.

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