Despite major efforts in recent years to dramatically increase numbers, just 6% of the UK’s registered engineers and technicians are female. So why are women still so poorly represented across the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sectors?
Of course, there is no easy answer to this question. Perhaps if there were, efforts to boost the number of female engineers would have been more fruitful.
However, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) thinks it has come up with one possible explanation.
Medicine has achieved a significant increase in women applicants in the last few decades, giving the medical schools a much wider pool of talents to choose from
Eliza Rawlings, general manager of automation firm Festo
In a recent study, in which 40 undergraduate engineering students kept twice-monthly diaries, the university found that women often feel marginalised — particularly during internships, other summer work opportunities, and team-based educational activities.
According to the study, in those situations, gender dynamics seem to generate more opportunities for men to work on the most challenging problems, while women tend to be assigned routine tasks or simple managerial duties.
The study finds that because of such experiences, women who have developed high expectations for the profession quickly become disillusioned.
To help avoid this issue getting any worse, members of the engineering community have outlined a number of possible solutions.
For instance, Stone Junction, a PR firm that represents several engineering companies, has called on businesses to promote their female employees and raise their profiles as role models for girls.
“Businesses should work to make it clear that engineering can be an exciting career for both genders,” Stone Junction said.
Another major issue holding more girls back from engineering is a lack of understanding about what a career in the sector involves, the company said.
“A greater awareness of the range of professional choices available is essential in supporting girls’ career development…Businesses need to promote clarity on the career paths available and their differences, from software to chemical engineering.”
Eliza Rawlings, meanwhile, who is general manager of automation firm Festo, said engineering must promote itself better if it is to attract young talent.
She said lessons can be learned from other industries, which have successfully tackled gender balance issues.
“Look at medicine, where women applicants now represent over 50% of university intake,” Rawlings said.
“Medicine has achieved a significant increase in women applicants in the last few decades, giving the medical schools a much wider pool of talents to choose from.”
She said engineering has a lot of work to do if it is to catch up.
Elsewhere, the Institution of Engineering and Technology has taken a slightly different approach and has called on female engineers to capitalise on their knowledge and expertise by having their work published across its magazines and information services.
A greater awareness of the range of professional choices available is essential in supporting girls’ career development
Stone Junction, engineering PR firm
IET president Naomi Climer said it is important that engineering publications ensure gender diversity in their approach to publishing.
“That’s why we are appealing to female engineers to share their expertise and experiences with their peers, not only as a way of boosting their own career progression but also to inspire the next generation of female engineers,” she said.
Fortunately, these suggestions form just a handful of the myriad initiatives being undertaken to increase the number of female engineers
Unfortunately, the fact remains that just 6% of the current workforce is female — and it’s a figure that hasn’t changed in several years.
Hopefully, today’s National Women in Engineering Day will bring about a step in the right direction.