GUEST BLOG: To create more female engineers, we need to create more strong female role models

In this contributed blog post, Elaine Baker, the engineering director for the Applied Intelligence division of BAE Systems, explains the need for strong female role models in building the next generation of engineers. 

The Big Bang Theory, a massively popular US TV show about three ‘geeky’ academic physicists and an engineer, has a lot to answer for. Although it is certainly promoting science in popular culture, on the surface it does perpetrate the stereotype that science, technology, maths and engineering are male-dominated pursuits. And sadly, the figures seem to back this up – according to figures from last year, women only make up 14.4% of the UK science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) workplace.

At GCSE level, girls do well in comparison to boys at science subjects, so it’s difficult to explain why there is such a drop off at A-Level when it comes to female representation in a subject such as physics. For example, figures from
the Institute of Physics say that the proportion of girls to boys studying physics at A-level hovers at around 21%.

The ratio of boys to girls in subjects like maths and chemistry is more equal. But worryingly, the gender gap among computer science students in British universities seems to be widening. According to UCAS figures, the percentage of women to men doing this subject is calculated to be around 14%.

In engineering, the problem is deeper than simply a skewed male/female split. According to the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET), only half of British firms that employ engineers and IT staff could find the employees they were looking for. Lobby group EngineeringUK has issued warnings that the UK currently has a shortfall every year of about 55,000 people with engineering skills.

Government efforts to support engineering

Without skilled workers, it will be hard for businesses to grow, especially in the manufacturing and technology sectors. And the government has acknowledged this for some time. In 2012, the Department for Business and Skills (BIS) undertook a review which said that there was a need to target and engage new audiences around science and engineering with events, academies, policy decisions and school programmes.

The government supports the British Science Festival and the National Science and Engineering Week, as well as fund the work of four independent national academies – the Royal Society, British Academy, Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Academy of Medical Sciences. STEMNET is a UK-wide organisation set up to inspire young people to take an interest in science, technology and mathematics, while there is a National Science and Engineering Competition open to all 11 to 18-year-olds living in the UK and in full-time education.

In terms of increasing the number of women in engineering, the charity Women’s Engineering Society offers inspiration, support and development through a professional network of women engineers, scientists and technologists. It also coordinates the National Women in Engineering Day on the 23 June, an international awareness campaign designed to raise the profile of women in engineering and the potential career opportunities available.

On the computer engineering side, there is certainly a push to get more girls ‘coding’ and into computer programming. In the UK, there is a social enterprise called Code First: Girls which supports young and professional women to develop personal and professional skills related to coding, connects them to like-minded people, and helps companies train their people and develop talent management policies.

Enterprises like Microsoft and Cisco are active in tackling this talent issue, with investment in programs that encourage and mentor girls and young women studying the Stem subjects that can launch engineering and technology careers. According to a recent McKinsey study though, women only make up 36.8% of entry-level workers in tech, while in other industries, women account for nearly half of entry-level workers.

Creating role models for a new generation of female engineers

Although there is a lot of laudable work going, we need to start getting away from talking about ‘women in engineering’ and more about women growing naturally in these roles, which may take time. However, to get the younger generation getting out of the mind-set that Stem subjects are just ‘for the boys’, we need to get diverse groups of people of both genders working with academia and industry to talk about the benefits of doing Stem subjects. And there certainly are some big ones – endless opportunities for professional and personal growth, higher pay, and a stimulating work environment.

Educators, parents and employers have a big responsibility. If parents see jobs related to studying Stem subjects as being good career options, their children will naturally listen. If schools can reinforce this Stem message and provide the right information and advice, kids will have enough information to make informed decisions without being swayed by outdated stereotypes. Employers must also make sure that they put in policies that makes the workplace more accessible to women, and that they are retained in top senior science and engineering careers. You can see how this could turn into a virtuous circle, with more strong female engineering role models created who inspire future generations of young women.

Industry certainly needs to examine properly how it’s communicating with the next generation of women in engineering. But I believe once we get more women in the right job roles, the industry will naturally move in the right direction. Young women will have more confidence to break down the established stereotypes on their own, becoming top engineers or leading the biggest technology companies in the world. Given the right backing and education, women can see the worlds of science, engineering and technology as their oyster.