We must work harder to increase the talented pool of women in engineering

Posted by Professor Dame Ann Dowling on 23 June 2015

By now I am sure you are aware that at 6% the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in the EU; the news is no better when compared to other parts of the world. In addition, in the UK, only 17% of engineering undergraduates, 8% of engineering professors and 4% of engineering apprentices are female.

As President of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a woman who has really enjoyed a career in engineering, I find these statistics hard to understand. Why have initiatives over the last three decades had so little impact on increasing the number of women in engineering careers across industry and academia, and, what else should be done to precipitate change?

The Science and Technology Select Committee Report into Women in Scientific Careers tells us that despite concerted attention "it will take 50 or 80 years before we get gender equality if we just keep doing the same thing, hoping that the pipeline will produce more women". We must do something different to radically alter our approach if we are to accelerate change.

The fact so much has been done with little impact must be, at least in part, due to deeply rooted issues in our culture and society. From their early years, many girls are still taught to ‘play out’, and ultimately conform, to gender roles that lead to occupational segregation.

Attitudes that underpin perceptions like ‘boys are good at maths and girls are good at English’ are perpetuated right across society. They feed into the current situation where physics is the fourth most popular subject choice for boys at A Level but seventeenth for girls. The effects of these choices are reflected in the career choices of women and men, and whilst some employers and institutions in male dominated sectors do well at developing inclusive cultures that support hiring and retaining female engineers, others could do a lot better.

At the Academy we are working with EngineeringUK through Tomorrow’s Engineers on a schools programme to help inspire the next generation of engineers – vital if we are going to find those 1.8 million additional engineers we will require by 2022. We are also supporting professional engineering institutions and employers to increase the retention of women in the profession.

We now have 30 of our 36 professional engineering institutions signed-up to our Engineering Diversity Concordat, stimulating collaborative working on diversity and inclusion; and we have over forty engineering organisations taking action on diversity and inclusion through our Diversity Leadership Group. I am cautiously optimistic that our Academy diversity programme, together with wider societal initiatives like shared parental leave, reporting on equal pay, and the focus on women returners will make a positive difference.

But we need to do more to communicate why engineering is a rewarding career for men and women. Many young women are just not aware how creative engineering is – and how much it relies on communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills. I regularly talk to schools about engineering and this month delivered the Imperial College London's Annual Athena Lecture. I look forward to the roll-out of events to mark National Women in Engineering Day (NWED) as a day when we can combine to get the message out.

I’m certain that synchronising our efforts will quicken the pace of change. Wishing you a happy and productive National Women in Engineering Day.

Author

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Professor Dame Ann Dowling
Name: Professor Dame Ann Dowling
Job title: President
Organisation: Royal Academy of Engineering