Solving the complexity of the gender imbalance in engineering

18.06.18

The UK needs an estimated 20,000 more skilled engineers to meet the current shortage. Of the current engineering workforce only 11% is female ... five RPS Engineers discuss the issue.

It has been estimated that the UK needs an extra 20,000 skilled engineers annually to meet the current shortage. It’s clear we need to be doing more to attract and train the numbers needed. When you add to this the fact that only 11% of the engineering workforce is female, and that the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in Europe, we can and should be doing more to find out why this gap exists and how we can attract more women into the industry.

To explore this complex issue, we asked five of our female Engineers to sit round the table and discuss why they think this is, and what needs to change.

Discuss the most common misperception of the industry.

Kerstin – “When people think of the construction industry they think of a man in a white van. They don’t see that it is a highly skilled, professional job where you can coordinate in multi-billion pound projects. Or how many roles exist that require different skill sets”.

Maria – “I don’t think there’s a very good awareness of what a structural engineer does in the UK. Or a civil engineer versus a mechanical engineer versus a geotechnical engineer. How are young people, or young women, expected to choose this as a career route if they don’t know what it is”.

Kerstin – “I think that’s where it falls down, it isn’t portrayed correctly and that perception filters down into schools”.

Michelle – “I agree. I think it is our responsibility to get the word out”.

Maria – “I think part of the problem is that the word Engineer is used for so many things in the UK so it is difficult to distinguish what it means”.

Michelle – “That’s true. Architect is a protected term, but Engineer isn’t”.

Sefe – “The career is very respected at home in Nigeria and I think there is a much better awareness of what an engineer does”.

Maria – “That’s similar for me in Greece”.

What’s the best thing about a career in engineering?

Marie – “Definitely how varied the career can be. I don’t think people appreciate all the different areas you can go in to”.

Maria – “Each project is different, so you never do the same thing”.

Sefe – “I really like knowing that even within engineering there are lots of different things I can do. Thinking about how much I can do when I graduate with my degree is amazing because of the mix of soft skills and hard skills that I have gained.”

Kerstin – “Definitely, once you have created your knowledge base there are areas you can diversify into and find your niche to develop into.
This was the case for me. I started my career in the project management route, but after children I needed more flexibility and less demanding hours and my original role just wasn’t suited to a part time arrangement. You need to be constantly on top of what is happening on site and the project doesn’t stop while you’re not there. But my employer was so supportive, and because the industry is so varied I was able to take a different route in to project programming which is what I do now. There are a lot of options available.”

What can be done to change the perception and raise awareness?

Marie – “I think the key is education at school level on the options that are available in different industries. I went to an all-girls grammar school and going back to school GCSEs time I didn’t know what a structural or civil engineer did. I didn’t know anything about the industry and so it wasn’t something I considered”.

Michelle – “You are 16 when you choose A Levels. That is quite young to limit your subjects if you don’t know what you want to do, or the career routes available”.

Kerstin – “In Germany for A levels we have to choose one from science side and one from the language side to cover different aspects which gives you a broader cover and keeps all paths open for you”.

Marie – “Certainly by that age people need to have an awareness of engineering and all the different topics that are available. I think that’s the same for all industries. I am not sure people are always made aware of the options available and the different paths they could go down. That was certainly the case for me.”

Michelle – “I definitely think careers advisors have a big role to play.”

Sefe – “This was a massive influence for me. There was so much engagement in school, with universities coming into speak to us so we had a real awareness of the routes available.”
One of the things that my school did was to bring in a test that let you put in your personality traits and interests and it would give you a list of jobs that would suit your profile. I got engineer and architect, but also DJ!’

Marie – “I think the government has a responsibility particularly in education to make sure people are aware of the options available to them.”

Sefe – “I also think TV and now things like social media have a big influence. What you see and what you hear, and even what you don’t hear affects how you think.
I remember seeing a TV programme about a building that was being built and the project manager was a woman going to site in a hard hat and a business suit, with a plan in her hand. I remember being really inspired and thinking that is something I could do.”

Maria – “Yes a combined effort through education and popular culture to change people’s perception of the industry.”

Sefe – “Yes it’s just about awareness and letting people know that it’s a really good thing to go into, because it really is.”

RPS is an equal opportunities employer and is committed to providing equal opportunity and pay, flexible working arrangements and promoting diversity in our workforce.