There is a skills shortage in the British engineering industry today. It is estimated that, ‘by 2022 the UK will need at least 1.82 million new engineering, science and technology professionals’ (Royal Academy of Engineering) as trends continue to favour more theoretical subjects and fewer university students choose to study physics and engineering. As well as this trend, there is an even greater gender gap between those trained and available to take up jobs in the industry and the vast majority of engineers, particularly those in senior roles, are men. Why is this and is there anything that can be done to change it?
At the beginning of 2015, NCE Jobs carried out a survey that looked at the role of female engineers. We asked more than 250 people who worked in the sector about their experiences with a view to establishing how underrepresented women are and to what degree people felt women are treated differently in the engineering profession and, to shed light on the reasons why.
A variety of people responded to the survey from all over the world and from a wide spread of age groups: 14% are aged under 25 whilst 17% who are over 70. The largest contingent (25%) was aged between 25 and 30 (see appendix) and 63% of all respondents were female. Furthermore, the survey’s respondents were at a number of different stages in their engineering careers, from current students to around 11% who have more than 30 years of experience in the industry. Amongst this sample, there were also a number of different types of engineer and levels of seniority represented. As a result, the survey results are representative of the views of a relatively large and diverse sample of the engineering industry.
Of that sample, 80% said that women are currently under-represented in the engineering industry and 46% noted that the proportion of females working as engineers has remained consistent for the past five years in their places of work. To begin to understand why this is, the survey looked at a number of factors, from the reasons why engineers chose their career path to the structure and attitudes of the workforce within the sector. Throughout this article, we will present the responses that we received and consider them as evidence for if and why there is a gender imbalance in the engineering industry.
Why Choose Engineering?
We asked those that had chosen to pursue a career in engineering what it was that led them to select their career paths. A number of reasons were cited including the positive job prospects the career offers and a natural interest and ability in the field of design. The majority of engineers, however, attribute their interest in studying engineering to the encouragement or inspiration of a family member or teacher, with many noting that those close to them were already in the profession.
This mixture of responses suggests that knowledge of the specific realities of the career is important in leading young people into the decision to study engineering at university. Indeed, 50% of survey respondents believe a lack of understanding about the wide variety of roles and responsibilities in the sector to be a major reason as to why women were not attracted to the industry. A vital factor appears to be whether that knowledge and understanding comes from those in the profession already or whether it is taught in schools.
But is it simply a lack of understanding that has led to the gender gap within the engineering sector?
Many of those working within the profession do suggest that many roles involve working unsociable hours and comprise a poor work-life balance that may be unappealing to women who are mothers of young children. It is argued that, as women tend to be those that are more likely to be responsible for childcare, this lack of flexibility prevents them from progressing through companies. The issue, therefore, is perhaps not attracting women to engineering, but keeping them there.
However, whilst a lack of understanding or roles for women may have had an impact on why this particular industry is male focused, the majority of respondents (61%) gave the primary reason for this gender bias as being the ‘image that it is a male dominated industry’. It is likely that such perceptions around the industry could have led to the development of a social norm. It seems that this is something of a vicious cycle whereby the norm is dictated by behaviour, which is dictated by the norm.
Breaking the Cycle
The question then arises as to how this cycle might be broken and, specifically, by whom? If a good understanding of the role of an engineer from a young age can encourage people to pursue a career in the sector, it follows that a large part of the responsibility for changing perceptions and encouraging girls to consider a degree in engineering lies with educational institutions. Of survey respondents, 41% agree that schools are responsible for doing more to attract females to the engineering sector.
Furthermore, one of the respondents suggested that practical elements of engineering might be taught before theory so as to engage young people more and teach them about the true nature of the job. In her article for the BBC, Dame Professor Ann Dowling, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, criticises the education system in the UK for favouring a theoretical approach over practical, skills based learning (Dowling, BBC). That said, this does not directly explain the gender imbalance and instead points to a general lack of understanding of the profession amongst both men and women.
Many respondents argue that, whilst education is important, it is the responsibility of engineers themselves to close the gender gap in the industry, whether that is the firms that employ engineers, HR managers or strategic directors. Where job structure, inflexible hours and lack of opportunities for women are cited as the reasons for a lack of women in the engineering sector, it follows that the 30% of respondents who believe that employers are responsible for closing the gender gap are correct.
In fact, it is perhaps more accurate to recognise that it is the combined responsibility of all these people, organisations and institutions along with a change in attitude in the media that is most likely to reduce the gender bias in the engineering industry. Where the issue goes deeper than a lack of flexibility and opportunity for female workers and there exists an inherent social norm that positions women outside of the engineering industry and labels it a ‘man’s job’, this leads to a lack of encouragement or desire for women to study physics and mathematical sciences at a young age. It is also this norm that leads to a gender bias when recruiting for engineering roles; and, it is this norm that leads to sexism in the workplace and an environment in which women report being treated differently from men.
Not Just For Boys
But efforts are being made to change this at a high level. At the end of 2014, the UK government launched the ‘Not Just for Boys’ scheme, which aims to encourage women to consider careers in industries that are typically considered ‘men only’ such as those of engineering, construction and other sciences. The Department for Work and Pensions has introduced a hashtag - #notjustforboys – for use on social media and is hosting and encouraging a number of informative events that aim to provide knowledge about these industries and opportunities for young women interested in such careers to meet professionals and to ask questions (Gov.uk).
It is hoped that this campaign will go some way to changing perceptions of women in engineering and the sector as a whole and will encourage a change in attitude from the early stages of a child’s education right up until they choose their careers. A number of high profile employers in the engineering sector, such as OPITO, are supporting the campaign and are committing to, not only encouraging more women to apply for roles, but also to highlighting the excellent work that women are already doing in the industry (Daily Record).
Amongst our survey respondents, it is widely accepted that women are under-represented and treated differently in the engineering profession. According to the respondents of a survey published by NCE jobs, the reasons for this vary but generally relate to: education and the lack of understanding about the profession; job structures, conditions and salaries not favouring women with families; and a latent cultural norm that projects a belief that engineering is a ‘man’s job’.
The survey data suggests that the responsibility for restoring the gender balance in the engineering sector lies with a number of parties; from schools to employers to the media, who all need to work together to encourage a greater presence of women in the industry.
Steps to achieve this have already been taken via the ‘Not Just for Boys’ government campaign, which was launched last year, to encourage women to apply for roles in industries in which they are. It remains to be seen as to whether this will have the desired effect.
We’ll reassess in ten years’ time …
Graphs to show survey responses
- Age of survey respondents
- How long ago did you graduate?
- Are women under-represented in the engineering sector?
4. How has the number of females in your department changed in the last 5 years?