International Women in Engineering Day 2018 is upon us. A day to celebrate the female engineering workforce and to raise awareness of the great opportunities available for girls interested in pursuing a career within the industry.
It’s also a day to reflect on the gender disparity in engineering and the ways we could fix it. Women make up 47% of the working population in the UK, yet in engineering women only make up roughly 10% of the workforce. So what can we do about the gender disparities in this country (that happen to be one of the worst in Europe)?
Educating the public (and parents) on Engineering
There is a lot of confusion about what an engineer actually does. A lot of what the public associate with engineering is outdated and stereotypical. In fact, research by the Institution of Engineering and Technology found that only 23% of parents felt ‘very confident’ describing what an engineer is. This is undoubtedly harmful to the industry; for someone who hasn’t investigated what engineering actually is, you could forgive them for not understanding how well respected and lucrative a career in it can be.
This misconception of engineering can discourage potential students, not only from the perspective of the girls who are figuring out what they want to do in life, but crucially the parents who influence them. Raising your daughter to see her go into (what they believe to be) a very masculine career might not be what many parents would have in mind – in fact a survey commissioned by the Institution of Engineering and Technology in 2014 found that just 1% of parents wanted their daughter to pursue engineering. Educating the public about the hugely varied work of engineers would go a long way to fixing the gender disparity.
Supporting charities like WES and the UKESF
There are now several charities that are pushing for more women in engineering. Women's Engineering Society (WES) is the leading example in the UK, and with a mission of inspiring and supporting girls and women to achieve their potential as engineers, applied scientists and technical leaders, it was WES who founded International Women in Engineering Day! They have been around for close to a century now and have many programmes and initiatives you can get involved with, as a woman pursuing a career in engineering or as someone who wants to help make a difference.
Another charity worth mentioning is the UKESF, who we’re currently working with on their Music Mixer project. They specifically encourage young people to consider the possibilities of engineering, by demonstrating the opportunities available within the industry, and supporting their journey through to employment. Often we ask, what can the industry do to close the gender gap? But there are many ways for all of us to contribute to the cause of getting better female representation in engineering.
Enticing back existing women engineers
While a lot of effort is being put into encouraging young women to pursue engineering, there is also another issue to address: women engineers who fall out of the profession. According to Women’s Engineering Society’s research, there are approximately 20,000 skilled engineers who have left the profession, to have children or for other reasons, that now find they cannot return. In the event of starting a family, this is intrinsically a female issue that the industry must compensate for.
Fortunately, organisations have taken notice. The Institute of Marine, Engineering, Science and Technology, or IMarEST, have developed a ‘STEM Returners’ programme to help those who have taken career breaks return to work, involving a 13-week paid employment placement at one of a number of partner companies. The Institute of Civil Engineers is also running a similar programme. These provide great opportunities for women looking to return to the profession, and we must work harder to regain the 20,000 skilled female engineers to help close the gender gap.
If you’re a female engineer, keep up the great work! If you’re interested in finding a job within engineering, whatever your gender, you can find our job listings here.