According to recent insight from the Women’s Engineering Society, less than 8 per cent of the UK’s engineering workforce is female. While that figure is remarkable, what’s even more shocking is that a similar report, released in 1919 by The Women Engineer Magazine, highlighted exactly the same figures. In other industrialised European countries, such as Germany, France and Sweden, women account for between 15 and 25 per cent of all engineers. In the UK, however, we haven’t progressed for nearly 100 years.
The UK’s shortage of female professionals is not only bad for business, but also represents a significant barrier to our long-term economic performance. Indeed, the Royal Academy of Engineering has estimated that 1.28 million science, engineering and technology professionals are needed by 2020 to support the UK’s economic recovery – a significant number of whom must be female.
Radical action needs to be taken, to both address the shortage of untapped female talent in engineering, as well as redress the gender balance. Four key areas, in particular, deserve serious consideration.
Inspiring the next generation
Although pushing engineering from an early age in school is obviously important, we must look to influence and inspire children from an even younger age. From firemen (Fireman Sam), soldiers (Action Man) and even farmers (Old Macdonald), our desire to work in a specific role or industry can be defined from a very early age. The characters and media children are exposed to can shape their perceptions.
We need to get children playing with toy chemistry sets and plastic workbenches to broaden their horizon, but the media also has a key role to play in promoting engineering. We should see more stories on Newsround about engineering companies, as well as prioritise influential profiles of women in business in girls’ magazines, to inspire readers to look beyond the immediate world around them.
Too often girls are exposed to characters that fit within traditional female stereotypes and, while this is beginning to change, it’s not happening quickly enough. We need to swap tiaras for tool belts every now and then to ensure all children, regardless of gender, get a good understanding and appreciation of what engineering is from an early age.
Removing the stigma
Love it or hate it, engineering is a ‘dirty’ word. Unfortunately, that puts a huge percentage of people off working in the sector – not just women. This is a stigma we must tackle head on.
In reality, engineering is a sexy industry with huge amounts of potential. Would you call an iPhone unglamorous, or a Bugatti Veyron boring? From Apple and Bugatti to Sony and Microsoft, all manufacturing has elements of engineering associated.
Maybe we simply need to rename the industry – engineering doesn’t quite cut it. A more accurate term, such as ‘the innovation industry’, would make jobs more appealing and make the whole industry more accessible.
Another common misconception is that all jobs in engineering are for engineers. This is absolutely not the case. A huge percentage of the staff at OMS, for example, work in project management, technology development, marketing, HR, management, administration, logistics and other roles. What’s more, a high number of them are female.
Why should we constantly focus on just inspiring women to become engineers? Instead, should we look to inspire them to work in the engineering sector?
Bring back quotas
When considering quotas in business, companies should always employ and promote people because of their skills, potential and attitude, because that’s part of how to run a successful business. However, in the case of women in engineering, there might be a short-term case for going back to a quota system.
It’s obvious that the UK, more than our European cousins, suffers from an issue of culture where female engineers are concerned. Quotas could be the answer to developing a female pipeline for the industry. Countries like Sweden have demonstrated how this can work and we should deliberate implementing such a system in the UK.
Encouraging more women to take up roles in engineering isn’t just a hope, it’s a necessity. There is so much untapped talent, which we must harness to support our economy. We need to learn from European best practice and implement similar initiatives to really kick-start the industry. Another 100 years without an upturn in the industry just isn’t an option.
About the author
Denise Smiles has more than 15 years of commercial experience working for a range of blue chip organisations. With a proven track record in developing and improving business revenue streams and profit, Denise has made her mark at OMS since joining the company in 2006 and now holds the role of CEO.