Recently, I was looking for some stock photos of female engineers. Whilst scrolling through, I couldn't help but notice a serious lack of 'sensible' photos compared to images depicting male engineers. When googling ‘female engineer stock photos’, I found that women often looked puzzled, underdressed or otherwise ridiculous.
This highlights an ongoing problem. There is an underlying notion that women in engineering jobs aren't really able to work in engineering the same way men can.
So what are some of the underlying issues here, and can anything be done about them?
According to WES (
Women in STEM) only 6% of the workforce in the UK is female and only 5.5% of engineering professionals are female. Yet, the UK needs to double the number of engineering recruits to meet demands.
With these figures you could ask whether women are just not that interested in engineering. But this is not the case. In 2012 girls achieved better or equal A*-C GCSE combined grades compared to boys in all STEM subjects except Math’s (1%-point difference), ‘other science’ and ‘other technology.’
Looking further down the line however in 2012 79% of those who took A-level physics were male and in 2011 men were awarded 85% of engineering and technology degrees. We seem to be losing our female engineers between GCSE and degree level.
Sir James Dyson, writing for the Telegraph , examined comments made in August 2014 by Dr Gijsbert Stoet (University of Glasgow) in which Dr Stoet said that pushing for gender equality in the education system would "completely deny human biology and nature," claiming that "science for the boys, arts for the girls. His view is that men enjoy "things"; while women's strengths lie in "people".
The view that women aren’t really suited to engineering presents itself in various ways, for example, in 2013, the median basic income for male registered engineers and technicians (£55,000) was 19.7% higher than that of females (£45,941) and fewer than one in ten STEM managers were female (
This is not just an issue in engineering but STEM subjects across the board. Real damage is being caused to younger generations of women by the way we present, talk about and treat female engineers and it is being reinforced by these types of archaic views.
Harriet Minter for the Guardian argues that engineering institutions and companies must avoid the temptation to blame each other. Firms could say that it’s the fault of the universities not producing enough STEM graduates and, in turn, the universities could blame schools for not producing enough female students with the right A-levels or equivalent qualifications.
In order to inspire and retain female STEM talent all institutions need to combine resources and work towards presenting a new perspective on engineering from a young age. Instead of relying on the information and attitudes that already exist, engineering needs to be actively promoted by the companies and institutions themselves and by parents, teachers and schools. And in secondary schools there needs to be more options for engineering-related subjects. Currently the only subject that combines science and mathematics in a practical format is Design and Technology.
The foundation of teaching engineering itself also needs to change and advance. It needs to "move away from wooden blocks and PVA glue toward a curriculum that focuses on the latest industry techniques - alongside plenty of sketching, prototyping and creativity. It’s how engineers work in the real world, so teaching must reflect this."
As for universities, they need to go directly into schools to directly inspire young women. Universities raising awareness of opportunities in engineering to women whilst they are still in school can be powerful and highly influential. It provides reputable, reliable and concrete links between enjoying STEM in school and having supported futures in higher education and beyond; making STEM career paths a sensible and realistic possibility.
Companies need to promote women based on merit at the same pace and pay as men. Minter advises looking to promote women into high up positions, in turn providing role models for younger women and gaining a wider female perspective when making influential decisions.
Finally, young women need to be educated and supported by their parents. Minter addresses those who try to direct their daughters away from engineering for fear it is a ‘boys subject,’ stating; "What’s so wrong with her getting her hands dirty anyway?... this is a career that in 20 years’ time could be paying her handsomely to do a job that is creative and thoughtful and useful."
This gender gap and attitudes towards women in engineering aren’t going to change by themselves. We need to work together to demonstrate to young girls from an early age that the idea of them being an engineer isn’t a joke and their desire to become one won’t be considered an attempt at being ‘one the of the boys’.
This involves a push from parents and education establishments, at the very least, to educate young girls about careers in STEM from a young age. We need to provide up to date qualifications using new methods in design and engineering, and provide a gender balanced history of engineering showing that both men and women can become successful engineers in their own right.