Engineers working on Crossrail

Engineer for success: increase the nine per cent

Image credit: Arup, BECHTEL

Despite years of campaigns and initiatives, UK women still aren’t embracing engineering. So what can the British industry learn from more successful countries?

When civil engineer Jessica Green, from British engineering consultancy Atkins, was growing up, she wanted to be an architect. At school, her favourite subjects were maths, science, art and history, and she loved the idea that you could interpret culture through the buildings of an era.

Yet on applying for university, she discovered that architecture courses contained little maths and, as she puts it, “were essentially a slightly technical art degree.” Her family suggested structural engineering, but that didn’t appeal either.

“Civil and structural engineering university prospectuses mainly featured men, on site, in hard hats and high-vis jackets,” explains Green. “I’m a fairly girlie girl and don’t like getting dirty, so I wasn’t blown away by this portrayal of engineering.”

Green finally found a joint course in structural engineering and architecture, instantly favoured her engineering modules and has never looked back. At Atkins, she’s worked in the offshore renewables, nuclear and defence industries at Hinkley Point C, Dudgeon Offshore Wind Farm and ITER. Yet as she puts it: “I almost steered clear of engineering entirely due to the photographs used in a university prospectus.”

Green isn’t alone with her first impression of engineering. Clare Lavelle, associate director at Arup, recently won the Women’s Engineering Society Karen Burt award, for professional excellence and promoting engineering to young women.

Lavelle is thankful that her engineer father sparked her interest in the discipline, but as she highlights, Google ‘engineer’ and even today, you still see image after image of men on-site wearing hard hats.

“Some roles do involve muddy boots, but what we do is so much more diverse,” she says. “I’m not sure society understands exactly what engineers do, so kids aren’t making informed decisions compared to other career paths.

“What’s more, I think society has hugely ingrained gender stereotypes, and this disadvantages women and men,” she adds. “For girls, these deeply instilled stereotypes that engineering and technical routes are most likely to interest boys must be removed.”

The latest figures from the IET confirm engineering’s widely-touted ‘gender gap’, and results are especially bleak for the UK, where women represent a paltry nine per cent of the engineering workforce. Yet 15 per cent of Germany’s engineering workforce is female,  and the proportion reaches 18 per cent in Spain, 26 per cent in Sweden and over 30 per cent in Latvia.

Beyond Europe the gender gap also closes, with China, India, Jordan, Malaysia and Tunisia having from 24 to 50 per cent of women among their engineers. What’s more, research from the Royal Academy of Engineering reveals that women in emerging economies express a greater interest in engineering than those from developed nations.

Unesco data shows high proportions of female engineering students in the Arab world, where governments are trying to develop knowledge economies and reduce their dependence on foreign workers. However, women engineers in the region often struggle to find suitable work after graduation. 

In the UK, engineering’s hard-hat image remains a problem, though. Dame Ann Dowling, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, non-executive director of oil giant BP, and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Cambridge, thinks the reason lies in the past.

“Because the UK was so strong on engineering in Victorian times, we still see big infrastruc­ture, trains, men wearing very tall top hats rather than bioengineering, electronic gadgets and mobile phones,” she says. “The image of engineering in people’s minds today is so historic.”

With a nationwide shortage of engineers, it’s vital to make the career look more appealing. Engineering UK says the annual supply of engineering graduates falls at least 20,000 short of demand, and probably more.

Like Arup’s Lavelle, Dowling believes gender stereotypes don’t help, and points out that around half of mixed state schools don’t have a single girl studying A-level physics, a crucial subject for future engineers.

“For some reason, physics just isn’t appealing to young women and to be that one girl in the class is rather awkward,” she says.

Dowling believes the UK forces young people to choose school subjects that determine career choices too soon. Perceptions instilled at an early age don’t help either. “Our study showed that families categorise kids as either creative or into the sciences and engineering,” she says. “These aren’t alternatives; you can be interested in science, but gosh, can you be creative as well.”

Even if a young woman evades the stereotypes, she will inevitably hit a further hurdle: status. The poor status of engineers in the UK, relative to peers across the rest of Europe and indeed the world, is considered by many to be a systemic problem for male and female engineers alike.

Lavelle agrees: “I think it’s right to say that engineering is not as well regarded in the UK as it is in other countries.”

Green adds: “I genuinely believe the perception of engineering is damaged by those who go by the title engineer but are actually technicians, mechanics, or aren’t affiliated to any engineering institution.”

She recalls how a friend working in a factory producing aeroplane parts called himself an engineer, but questioned her engineering status as she ‘worked in an office’.

“He eventually looked into engineering college courses but gave up when he realised qualification would take years,” she says. “If society understood how much training you undertake to become a chartered engineer, it would be seen as a more prestigious career path.”

Prestige or not, the fact that engineering is perceived to be an elite profession in France, Germany and further afield, clearly remains a sticking point.

Kirsten Bodley, chief executive of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), is certain that status is still an issue in the UK. “India and China, for example, have clearly recognised the value of engineers and how they can work to grow an economy and its productivity,” she says. “That’s the beauty of engineers; they keep moving forwards and seek solutions, and other countries recognise that more than the UK.”

WES itself hosts initiatives such as International Women in Engineering Day. Bodley says: “Things are changing, it is just that they are not changing fast enough.”

The WES chief executive believes employers need to provide inclusive workplaces with flexible working, have mentoring programmes for early-stage female engineers, as well as returnship programmes for women who have taken a career break. “Women not returning are a wasted, valuable resource... and I can’t see how this hasn’t had an impact on our economy’s productivity,” she says.

Bodley also points to this year’s Uff Review of the engineering profession, which calls for the professional engineering institutions to collaborate more in endeavours to attract and retain women.

“Organisations need leaders at all levels that openly support equality, diversity and inclusion,  while line managers need to be aware of any unconscious gender biases they may have,” she adds. “There’s a whole host of things going on and no one solution for it all.”

The UK is not the only nation concerned about its low proportion of female engineers.The US recognised at least a decade ago that it needed to pull more females into the profession, with organisations such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) aggressively pursuing recruitment strategies. However, similar issues remain.

Professor Debra Rodrigues from the University of Houston comments: “It is possible that nations such as China and India have a different perception of careers in engineering from the UK and US. I know for certain that in Latin America, careers in engineering are just not considered ‘female-friendly’.”

Rodrigues believes women need to be persistent when pursuing an engineering career. Noting a sometimes less than friendly workplace environment, she says: “Occasionally we feel we are not part of the ‘boys club’ and several studies show that women aren’t treated the same.

“Women can have lower pay-cheques than male counterparts, take on more work as they tend not to say no, or the company needs to put diversity into its activities,” she adds.  “Many organisations have been working to increase equality, but we are still far from solving the issue.”

A number of US researchers, typically funded by the NSF, have been working to clarify gender issues and are now identifying ways to tackle the problems.

Professor Nilanjana Dasgupta, a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, works to identify ‘social vaccines’ to shield women in engineering and technology from harmful stereotypes. She has shown that same-gender peers act as such a vaccine.

“You are very much affected by who you see and who you don’t see,” she says. “Even though the students I have worked with may not realise this, we can still measure it in our studies.”

Indeed, Dasgupta’s latest long-term field study reveals that first-year female engineering students, randomly assigned a female mentor rather than a male or no mentor, fared better in studies. “At the end of the first college year, 100 per cent of women students mentored by female peers were still in engineering majors,” she says. “This number is spectacular, as the first year of college is typically the time of greatest attrition from STEM majors.”

Meanwhile, researchers at the Universities of Missouri and Dakota have been examining students’ confidence in their ability to complete engineering-related tasks and anticipated outcomes, as part of an NSF-​funded study. Preliminary results from 12 engineering colleges indicate that gender, rather than race, is a key factor in college engineering experiences.

Professor Heather Hunt from the bioengineering department at Missouri is working alongside psychologists Professors Lisa Flores and Rachel Navarro to translate these results into practices that can be applied across US universities. These ‘evidence-based interventions’ are still being developed, but Hunt points out how, for example, her faculty keeps a close eye on team dynamics to ensure female students are not overlooked during a group project.

“Overwhelming evidence also shows these women are going into an engineering career to make an impact and make the world a better place,” she says. “During our students’ tenure here, and especially in the first year, we bring in women engineers that have done veritable things to show how engineering impacts society.”

Crucially as these projects continue, these researchers are keen to put their results into practice. “I’d like to take my evidence-based best practice and make it the normal part of what we do to recruit and retain under-represented students in STEM fields,” says Dasgupta.

Meanwhile, Hunt hopes the study data will persuade faculty members to implement evidence-based best practices. While she is reluctant to confirm that project results have global relevance in widely differing education systems, she believes the underlying principles remain.

Where next for engineering industries worldwide? Green and Lavelle, like many other female engineers, are already promoting women into engineering, with Lavelle regularly visiting schools and universities to talk about engineering careers. What’s more, these civil engineers are employed in companies that are clearly working to address gender imbalance.

Paul Oatham, UK corporate HR operations manager at global construction and civil engineering business Bechtel, sees levelling out gender differences as a matter of time.

A relatively large 16 per cent of Bechtel’s engineers are women – nearly double the UK average – and the company’s gender diversity recruitment programme has been in place for many years. Oatham advocates unconscious bias training and gender-balanced interview panels. Crucially, he now believes the organisation at large is starting to support growth of a more inclusive culture.

“Over time, the programme has had an impact on the diversity of our workforce as a whole,” he says. “We have a strong culture of promoting on merit, which has seen a number of our female professionals advancing their careers at a fast pace and acting as strong role models and mentors for other women engineers.”

Yet like Dame Ann Dowling, Kirsten Bodley, Clare Lavelle and many more, Oatham believes perceptions still need to change. “We need to communicate to the population at large about the amazing challenges that we over­come on some of these massive infrastructure projects.

“The industry could talk more about the incredible diversity of roles within companies and work with schools and colleges so that students get a chance to see what we really do first-hand.” 

Global engineering graduates: who does it better?

A recent UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030, reveals female engineering students trail men in engineering, especially in many high-income countries.

For example, in Japan and the Republic of Korea, women represent just 5 per cent and 10 per cent of engineering graduates, while this figure rises to 19 per cent in Canada, Germany and the US, 27 per cent in New Zealand and 30 per cent in India.

Bright spots include Cyprus, where 50 per cent of engineering graduates are women, as well as Denmark with 38 per cent and the Russian Federation with 36 per cent.

Developing economies including Myanmar, Tunisia and Honduras are also lighting the way with 65 per cent, 42 per cent and 41 per cent female engineering graduates respectively. Arab Nations have reported a steady increase in women engineering graduates with United Arab Emirates coming in at 31 per cent, Brunei 42 per cent and Oman, 53 per cent. Indeed, as UNESCO points out, the United Arab Emirates government has also developed policies to encourage women into the labour force.

International fast facts

  • Only 9 per cent of the UK engineering workforce is female, and just 6 per cent of registered engineers and technicians – CEng, IEng, EngTech – are women.
  • The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10 per cent. Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead with nearly 30 per cent.
  • 13 per cent of the US engineering workforce is female, up from 5.8 per cent in the early 1980s.
  • 40 per cent of the engineering workforce in China is female; India stands at 33 per cent.
  • McKinsey Global Institute reports that enabling women to meet their full potential in work could add as much as $28tn to global GDP by 2025.

[Sources: WES, Paris Innovation Review, Royal Academy of Engineering, MIT]

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