Engineering: not for girls?

EngineeringThe UK has fewer female engineers than anywhere else in Europe. Now, with a skills shortage looming, it’s time to get more women into the sector.

Take a look around a typical UK engineering firm today, and you’d be lucky to spot more than a handful of female employees. In an age when we can be proud of gender equality, engineering continues to stand out as one of few remaining male-dominated industries. But if the sector is to achieve the growth potential that is predicted for the coming decade, a concerted effort is needed to attract more women into the profession.

The shortage of female engineers is stark. Research from trade body, EngineeringUK,  found that only 8.7 per cent of professional engineers in the UK are women. The dearth of female engineers is a challenge right around the world, but UK figures are the lowest in Europe. The UK is heading for an engineering skills crisis. If this imbalance is not addressed over the next decade, the country’s reputation for engineering excellence could be derailed.

Commentators agree that demand for engineers will rise exponentially over the next decade as our lives are increasingly driven by new technology and the pressure for renewable energy grows. According to EngineeringUK, the sector will need to recruit 2.2 million candidates over the next five to 10 years to meet the demand. That amounts to a 40 per cent increase, primarily driven by sector growth.

An ageing engineering workforce is also increasing the pressure on recruitment. Research from Roevin Engineering Recruitment suggests that 92 per cent of hiring managers expect their company to have a higher demand for engineers over the next five years, compared to any time previously. Given this pressure to find skilled professionals, the UK cannot afford to be missing out on the talent on offer in half of the population; women must make up a significant proportion of the candidate pool as these jobs are filled.

There is no reason why women should not excel in the sector. Year after year, we see young women matching or even outclassing their male peers in maths and science exams – both fundamental technical skills for an engineer. More and more, the industry is telling us they need engineers who not only have proficient technical capability, but also good communications skills to work effectively in a team and explain their work to key stakeholders. Here too, women have strong skills.

Engineering provides an interesting and varied career for intelligent and gregarious individuals – male or female. Few other industries offer the opportunity to address serious global challenges such as climate change, ageing populations and food scarcity. Nor do they promise such strong job opportunities or contribute to the economy on such a great scale.

So why aren’t there more female engineers? In the UK in particular, it seems to be the industry’s reputation that is holding women back. Based on Roevin’s research, 57 per cent say the industry’s reputation is the biggest barrier to a career in engineering. Engineering is too often viewed as a male career option. There is a vicious circle as the lack of female mentors makes it more challenging to inspire the next cohort of young women to enter the profession.

Today’s engineers also believe that careers advisors and parents sometimes act as barriers against the career choice, instead of encouraging our young people into a thriving sector. This points to a broader challenge – there is too little recognition for the exciting experiences and bright job prospects on offer in engineering.

The industry is now beginning to tackle this reputational challenge seriously and boost its female appeal. More companies are running apprenticeship schemes specifically targeting women. There are new support networks that bring together female engineers who are already working in the profession so they can share their experiences – both with each other and the next generation.

The Unlocking Britain’s Potential campaign is calling for greater collaboration between employers, parents and educators to address the current STEM shortage. The aim is to enhance technical education in schools and encourage more young people – male and female – to study STEM subjects at university and develop the talent pipeline for engineering careers.

Things are improving, and we are slowly seeing more young women enter the profession. But it is important for the industry, educators and government to continue their efforts and ensure women make a significant contribution to engineering’s future.

Gemma McGregor is a senior recruitment consultant for Roevin.

Thanks to The Guardian for allowing icould.com to republish this article. You can view the original version on the Guardian website.

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