Opinion: We can all help inspire women into engineering

Thursday 22 June 2023

Dr Clare O'Farrell
Dr Clare O’Farrell, Lecturer and Course Leader for Graduate Apprenticeship Engineering Design and Manufacture at RGU's School of Engineering, has written a piece in The Press and Journal highlighting that it is up to us all to help future generations of female engineers. It has been published to mark International Women in Engineering Day 2023 on June 23.

The engineering sector lacks diversity at all levels, particularly around gender balance. Progress has been made, but it is painfully slow.

When I started my degree, there were few enough women to get to know all their names fairly quickly. In the almost 20 years that followed, no significant change happened despite gender balance being a talking point at the time. The Women's Engineering Society was established in the UK over 100 years ago - that's a century of encouraging young women to take maths and physics in school and go on to study engineering at third level. Yet a quick search of peer-reviewed research articles with key words 'women' and 'engineering' gives hundreds of results from publications in 2023 alone. So how are we still here, and what can we do about it?

Recently I attended a STEM outreach event at a primary school, and we ran a practical activity for the pupils. At one point a group of all girls were doing excellently, and a teacher highlighted this to a group of boys saying something along the lines of “well are you going to be beaten by the girls?”

That may seem harmless enough and the teacher may have just been encouraging some friendly competition, but language matters. If you have generation after generation of young boys and girls hearing that one group should be more adept, more interested, more successful than the other in engineering-type activities or learning, the result is where we are.

Although current trends show that over 50% of third-level students are women, in engineering and technology it’s disappointingly only around 20%. Unsurprisingly, when there is greater gender balance in an engineering class there are lower drop-out rates amongst the women in the cohort, but interestingly also fewer men drop out.

This imbalance is reflected in industry where just 16.5% of professional engineers in the UK are women. That’s up approximately 6% over the previous decade, but still we are losing women to other industries. There are various reasons for this, but I cannot avoid stating that gender biased attitudes and discrimination play their role.

I am often asked why I chose to study engineering, and the short answer is money. I knew that there were jobs at the end of an engineering degree (not exactly what jobs), but a job was all that mattered to me at the time. I subsequently discovered that it wasn’t just jobs, but fantastic and varied careers. To boast a bit about my former female classmates – there’s a mechanical operations manager for a global semiconductor manufacturer, an environmental and sustainability manager for a national utilities company, and a facilities and security manager for an international luxury goods corporation to name but a few. And these careers and more are still there for the taking.

It is crucial that any industry with severe gender imbalance address the issue, as companies with more gender-diverse workforces tend to have better financial performance, higher productivity, and greater innovation. In the engineering sector, this additionally can have a significant societal impact as engineers play a vital role in addressing some of the most pressing global challenges, such as climate change and sustainable development. When women are involved, it can lead to more equitable and effective solutions to these challenges.

So, for the industry to have a better balance we all need to act, and I urge anyone reading this to consider the following. Firstly, we need to start early by promoting STEM education at a young age - parents and teachers can encourage girls, and we as a society can be more mindful of the language we use. Second, we need to provide mentorship to those young women involved in STEM subjects at second and third level – visibility really helps too, so call attention to all the successful STEM women you know or work with. Lastly, it’s on companies to create inclusive and welcoming workplaces, where outdated attitudes are obsolete. Together let’s speed up progress.

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