A mere 12% of UK engineers are female, a pitiful figure in comparison to over 50% in Oman and Malaysia and 33% in countries including Vietnam and Costa Rica. So why does this figure fall so short in the UK?
Recent findings from EngineeringUK highlight one major contributing factor being the sheer number of girls that opt not to study this subject throughout the educational pipeline even though statistics largely show a better academic performance from girls than boys in STEM subjects. Approximately 80% of female engineering students get a First or Upper Second compared to 74.6% male students.
Recent studies discovered that this low figure is a result of gender differences in the understanding and interest around what engineers do, as well as perceptions of self-efficacy with more girls feeling that they couldn’t become an engineer even if they wanted to.
With perceptions formed as early as six years old on roles we ‘should’ do, more can be done at academic level to de-gender roles and address the issues around understanding and perception of this area.
Diverse workforces foster more innovation and ideas generation. It is clear that engineering and manufacturing companies can also do more to ensure that they are actively encouraging an equal workplace that attracts female talent. Issues including retention and pay gaps are still evident and discouraging in this sector.
Below we look at some areas for improvement to encourage more female engineers from both an early age in education through to what engineering companies can be doing to help.
Encouraging more young women to study these subjects at school
A UK study by Microsoft revealed that 70% of girls surveyed would feel more comfortable pursuing a STEM career if they knew that an equal balance of men and women occupy these professions. Attracting a better gender balance from the start of education will significantly help diversify the industry.
Current statistics demonstrate that girls generally perform better than boys in STEM subjects at school yet they drop off the educational pipeline at some stage in the process. In 2018 only 22% of students starting A level Physics were female. This figure continues to decrease at further education level with only a 16% female representation of engineering and technology graduates in 2018/2019.
Degendering the engineering industry needs to start as early as primary school as children form perceptions of stereotypes in roles as early as the age of six with both parents and teachers playing a huge part as key influencers. Positive change can start from challenging the masculine identity of engineering and improving knowledge of engineering in parents and teachers as well.
Knowledge of engineering is one of the most common barriers with statistics showing that the gender gap was largest among 14-16 year olds when asked how much they knew about what engineers did. Almost 50% of girls stated they knew ‘almost nothing’ or ‘just a little’ in contrast with around 30% of males. This is the age when most young adults are deciding their career path and is an influential stage in their journey. In this EngineeringUK study 70% of 11-14 year olds said they look to parents and carers as a source of advice and 66% noted teachers as influential. However 24% of teachers in the study didn’t feel confident or know that job opportunities exist for girls in STEM careers. Their research also highlighted that parents are less likely to recommend a career in the engineering industry to their female children over their male children.
From access to flexible engineering training at a later age for women with caring responsibilities, to foundation courses for those with A Level choices that don’t allow direct entry to a BEng or an MEng course, lots more can be done in the education system to widen the routes into engineering and make it more accessible for women.
Achieving gender equality in engineering companies
It’s all good and well encouraging more young women to pursue engineering, however it can’t stop there. It’s clear that employers in the industry need to be doing more to engage female talent. The working environment needs adaptions to ensure that it’s one where women are happy to both join and stay.
Engineering and manufacturing companies can utilise their existing female employees to act as visible role models across social channels, content and advertising for new roles. You can also gather information from employees on how to make positive changes to appeal to more female talent. You can ask your current female employees what could be improved about the workplace to make them more comfortable, carry out surveys or run gender audits. Some engineering companies are already taking steps including an increased number of female toilets on facilities in engineering and construction sites and adjusting the fit of PPE for women rather than a generic one size fits all approach.
From the initial hiring process gender diversity can be tackled through carefully selecting language used in job adverts and any external communications. Choosing phrases to describe behaviours e.g. ‘ability to work well autonomously and as part of a team’ instead of phrases that would describe who would be considered for the role e.g. ‘results driven’ leaves less room for biased interpretations.
The gender pay gap is another barrier to targeting more female engineers. An EngineeringUK study showed that the average full time salary for those working in engineering occupations was higher for men than women in 34 out of 36 occupational study groups – that’s merely 2 groups where this wasn’t the case.
Transparency and sharing gender diversity stats internally can help highlight progress. Producing a voluntary gender pay gap report for smaller SMEs who don’t fall into the 250+ employee category, who legally have to share this data, is another great step that employers can take.