Celebrating Women in Engineering Day today (23rd June) Shaun Simmons, Managing Director at Cordant Technical Recruitment, discusses how we can further close the gender gap in the engineering industry.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are widely regarded as critical to the national economy. Engineers greatly impact our everyday lives, from creating cars and mobile phones to designing prosthetic limbs and the facilities that make them. Simmons has worked in technical recruitment for nearly 20 years and have a deep appreciation for the sector, however the industry is currently facing a challenging skills shortage.
The UK Commission for Employment and Skills showed that 43% of STEM vacancies are currently hard to fill owing to a lack of skilled candidates. To fulfil demand, the UK needs to find 1.8 million new engineers by 2020. In order to remain competitive in the global economy many companies are having to find ways to attract more professionals to the industry and this includes diversifying their pool of staff.
One option is increased effort to attract women to the sector as there is a severe lack of women who work within engineering and technology in the UK. In fact, according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), just 9% of the UK’s engineering and technology workforce is female. Compared to the rest of the world, the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10%, while Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead with nearly 30%.
One of the biggest causes of this is a failure to engage girls with STEM subjects and educate them about potential careers at an early age. In a recently study by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, it noted that at the age of 15 fewer than 5% of girls, compared with 18% of boys, expect to have a career in engineering or computing. This is clearly reflected in the percentage of girls who choose to study STEM subjects. In the study, it stated that only 7% of girls go on to take relevant higher qualifications at A Level or above, compared with 21% of boys. A fundamental flaw in the drive to get women into engineering starts with a lack of girls choosing STEM subjects at school.
This is also very clear at university level where male students still far out-represent women in a variety of technical fields. Universities and educators have claimed that more needs to be done to challenge society’s clichéd attitudes and expectations of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ career paths. To put it in perspective, according to the IET, 15.8% of engineering and technology undergraduates in the UK are female, compared to India where over 30% of engineering students are women.
In recognition of this, many companies are introducing schemes which focus on engaging young girls with STEM subjects. For example, National Rail has recently set itself targets in a bid to increase the male to female ratio of its workforce to 80/20 by 2020. As part of this it has launched an engagement programme that works directly with schools to encourage more young people, especially girls, to consider STEM subjects. Salesforce, the global leader in CRM has set up a range of programmes which focuses on ensuring that women are being paid the same amount as their male counterparts, to ensure a career in engineering is more appealing. Furthermore, the IET’s #9PercentIsNotEnough campaign aims to encourage and support employers to attract and retain more skilled women, and reduce the impact of skills shortages in years to come.
Speaking to some female engineers to find out what initially drew them to the profession and why they believe that there is a lack of female engineers, Leslie Jones, an engineering surveyor, said: “I love my job. Each day is different - you never know what challenges you will be facing when you turn up to work in the morning and where your work will take you. You could be working all over the world in some roles with lots of different people. No two days are the same. However, I do believe the industry can do more to appeal to women.”
She continued: “I believe there is an old-fashioned perception that engineering is a man’s job and that the industry doesn’t accommodate women with regards to family responsibilities. The industry needs to take women seriously and recognise that women can do the job just like their male counterparts. At the same time, women should be more open and honest about how they are treated in some companies and empower each other to report and stamp out poor treatment.”
“In my opinion a scheme should be set up for female engineers who want to donate their time to go to schools and promote the subject of engineering.”
There is no doubt that the industry is responding to the shortage of women in the industry, however there is still more that can be done. However, despite there being a slight increase in the number of women who choose engineering as a career, there is still a big gap in the industry. It is great to see some companies recognising this and acting to encourage more women to join the sector. At Cordant Technical Recruitment, we believe gender diversity in the engineering sector is a key way of reducing the skills shortage and we are actively working to seek out female engineers to fulfil roles.