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Coronavirus pandemic widens gender gap in engineering career choices

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New research from EngineeringUK suggests that for young people in particular, the Covid-19 pandemic is deepening gender differences in career aspirations in engineering or technology.

The gender gap in the engineering sector has long been a concern and remains a pressing issue, with women making up just 12 per cent of the engineering workforce.

In the survey, 1,131 young people aged 11-19 were asked about their attitudes and the degree to which their educational and career aspirations have been affected by the pandemic. While a large majority of young people believe engineering has an important role to play in fighting elements of the pandemic, when it comes to considering an engineering or technology career the gender gap is still clear.

When asked whether they would be likely to consider engineering as a career, 44 per cent of boys/young men answered 'yes' as opposed to just 24 per cent of girls/young women. This gap is even wider when it comes to technology, with 65 per cent of boys/young men vs 37 per cent of girls/young women saying they would be likely to consider a career in the sector.

The results suggest that the pandemic is deepening existing gender differences in career aspirations, with a higher proportion of girls/young women than boys/young men saying the pandemic has made them more likely to work in healthcare (29 per cent vs 18 per cent). In contrast, a higher proportion of boys/young men than girls/young women said the pandemic has made them more likely to work in engineering (17 per cent vs 12 per cent) or technology (23 per cent vs 18 per cent).

The survey also revealed that 41 per cent of girls/young women said that the pandemic has made "having a positive impact on society" more important to them when deciding on a career, compared with just 30 per cent of boys/young men.

The survey also looked at whether young people searched out information online, spoke to their parents or took part in any careers activity during lockdown, with the results showing another gender disparity with girls/young women more likely to have used the time to research their futures.

Sixty per cent of girls/young women, compared to 49 per cent of boys/young men, had taken part in a careers activity during lockdown. Forty-four per cent of girls/young women had discussed career options with their parents, compared with 30 per cent of boys/young men, while 27 per cent of girls/young women had searched for careers information online compared with only 19 per cent of boys/young men.

Dr Hilary Leevers, chief executive of EngineeringUK, says: "This survey, as well as our recent 'Educational pathways into engineering' report, shows that now more than ever we need to work together to encourage young people from groups underrepresented in engineering and technology to progress into the sector. The survey suggests that, unless we take action, gender disparity will increase.

"Gender imbalance is not the only diversity issue in engineering and technology – we also need to address inequalities for young people from certain ethnic minority and low socio-economic backgrounds. More diverse workforces are more creative and resilient – two things that will be valued now more than ever and so we have to commit to reaching out and inspiring, training and recruiting the next generation of engineers.

"STEM outreach and work experience needs to be targeted to the schools and students that need it most including those that are underrepresented in the STEM and engineering workforce and those that are most affected by the pandemic. We need to give young people the opportunities they deserve and, in turn, we need them to ensure the diversity of thought for a thriving future workforce.

"We ask that organisations that have been resilient to the impact of the pandemic go above and beyond, supporting young people who may join their future workforce and that of the wider system – from their supply chain to the wider economy. I also encourage the government to be bold, ambitious and experimental in its support for the next generation and to treat diversity as a priority not as a ‘nice to have’.

"Together, we can do this and, I truly believe, make a real difference to these young people’s futures.”

The report, 'Young people and Covid-19: How the pandemic has affected careers experiences and aspirations', is available online.

The challenge of changing the public perception of engineering – particularly among young people – is an ongoing concern, with the engineering industry still failing to recruit women effectively and, worse, to pay them as much as men.

Despite the general social push for equality and diversity, women continue to be paid less than men in 78 per cent of UK companies with over 250 employees, including those in the engineering and technology sectors. Figures from April 2019 showed that the gender pay gap was actually growing in 45 per cent of the UK’s biggest firms. However, a few engineering companies were bucking the trend.

These widely perceived disparities are doubly disappointing when it is considered that girls and young women do express an early interest in STEM subjects. The challenge is keeping them engaged as they get older.

More troubling is the revelation that women and minorities working in technology experience higher levels of stress and poor mental health and face more discrimination in their careers. Harassment of females in the workplace generally is another very real concern – and the engineering industry is no different.

To attract more girls and young women to the profession – and retain them in later life – will require a focused and sustained effort by the engineering sector.

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