It’s not brand new information that there’s a shortage of women in the engineering and technology industry. Currently, only nine per cent of the working engineering and technology industry are women (according to the 2015 Skills and Demand in Industry Survey carried out by the Institution of Engineering and Technology). This hasn’t changed much in a fair few years either. So, what are the reasons behind why women don’t want to work in the engineering industry? Before you read on, if you’re a woman reading this and you’re not an engineer, what’s your reason?
It’s no surprise that engineering as a career choice has been labelled as masculine. It’s not necessarily an ‘anti-female’ industry as such, but it has always attracted more males. It could be suggested that women automatically reject these types of jobs without even knowing it. Zoe Cunningham, one of the 100 most influential people in Tech City and selected by the BBC as the Brightest Woman in Britain in 2013, suggests that an ‘opt-out’ clause is possible. “We give ourselves “opt out” clauses by saying “oh I can’t do that”, or “I’ve not really got the right brain for this”. This is definitely something that is in play with women and technology.”
We asked 100 women via an unofficial online survey why they didn’t become engineers. Approximately 13 per cent responded saying that they didn’t feel they had the skillset. Either they were bad at maths or science or didn’t feel as if they were ‘clever enough’. Although this figure isn’t drastic, it shows that Zoe’s theory does have merit.
One way to combat this issue is to reassure women that being good at maths and science at school isn’t necessary to becoming an engineer. However, is this really the best way to get the numbers up in the industry and maintain them? Zoe suggests this isn’t the best way to go about it: “There is also a rise in the number of campaigns that stress things such as “you can program without studying maths” and “you can work in technology without being able to program”. While these are both true and valid points, I think that sometimes this reinforces the idea that women therefore shouldn’t be bothering with maths or programming, which I think has the potential to be extremely detrimental for them as individuals and for society.”
In our unofficial survey, a quarter of the women who responded said they haven’t become engineers because they weren’t given enough information at school. Although women of all ages responded, this is still an issue in schools today. More is being done from companies to invest time into educating children about the benefits of engineering, but is it enough? It’s progress, but why always start at the bottom? Zoe argues that people of all ages can pick up the skill of STEM:
“Young people are extremely influenced by their environment, so if they are not encouraged to study STEM subjects when at school, they might not have realised that they were missing out. The great news is that it is never too late, so I would encourage anyone who missed out on studying this at school level to start now. It is possible to teach yourself coding on the internet, or loads of great courses such as Makers Academy let you change career, no matter what your age.”
Naomi Climer, the new president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, insists that it’s down to awareness as to why women don’t choose to do engineering. On a Twitter conversation, she stated: ‘It's not obvious that engineering is for women, we need to make it visible. Incredible careers are to be had!” When asked about setting up quotas in companies to encourage women into the workplace, Naomi tweeted: “Need extra engineers in UK and women could be source. Don't like quotas, but need to get women into pipeline.” For quotas to even be successful however, we still need women to want to get into engineering.
To make engineering a sought-after career, Naomi suggests we “show engineering in female friendly terms; young role models, influence parents/teachers, activities in schools.”
The engineering industry is well known for its fairly low pay in the UK as well as the stigma that it’s a career designed for men. Zoe Cunningham suggests the reason for the low numbers of female engineers is down to this, but it’s not that simple. “Increasing wealth has meant that people are better able to “follow what they love” and that means that people are more likely to pick gender appropriate roles. I also saw an article that correlated the decline in women studying computer science with the advent of personal computing in the 80s, which had advertising targeted towards men.”
IET president Naomi Climer agrees that the social perceptions aren’t doing the industry any favours. She tweeted: “The UK has worst record in Europe- social perceptions likely to be part of it. Stereotype of engineering also plays a role.” –Having a female president for the first time in the IET’s 144-year history will certainly be a starting point, as well as the increased attention given to children to encourage them to study STEM subjects in schools. However, women who weren’t encouraged in school shouldn’t use that as a reason for not pursuing what can be a very active, exciting and fruitful career path. They can pick up courses and extra skills at any age. Even though the stereotypes of the industry are still present, women should look beyond that and see the real opportunities they could be missing out on.