Women in engineering

Rachel Swain, Editorial manager
June, 2016

Traditionally a male-dominated industry, the engineering sector is doing its best to address the gender imbalance

The UK has the lowest number of female engineers in Europe, but even with the opportunity to make a real difference, why aren't women attracted to the sector?

'The reasons can be partly attributed to the cumulative effect of societal stereotyping of careers suitability to boys and girls, reinforced by the media, and the lack of real careers advice in schools to challenge these stereotypes,' explains Dawn Bonfield, president of the Women's Engineering Society (WES).

Challenging stereotypes

It's this stereotyping that Sophie Harker, a graduate engineer at BAE Systems, believes is putting women off joining the engineering sector.

'The word 'engineering' tends to conjure up images of men in overalls with spanners, however that is not the case,' says Sophie. 'I work primarily at a desk with computers in normal business wear and, although there are currently more male than female engineers, it is not a man's world.'

To help fight these misconceptions, we need to encourage women to carry out work placements and see first-hand what the sector involves - which is exactly what Sophie did.

'While at university I undertook an internship with BAE Systems in the Military Air & Information (MAI) business unit. It was while there that I discovered engineering was for me and decided to reapply for the graduate scheme.'

Improving engineering's appeal

The industry is also failing to show women the crucial and exciting role that engineering plays in creating a sustainable future and addressing the global challenges that we face. This includes support for an ageing population, the need for secure and renewable energy, water shortages, climate change and population redistribution.

One graduate who has recognised how exciting a career in engineering can be is Vita Dudly Bow, a graduate bridge engineer at Arcadis.

'Engineering was particularly appealing because engineers work to improve the environment we live in, and there is constant proof of how their work creates positive change for the wider population,' she says. 'There is a huge spectrum of roles and opportunities available so you have the ability to pursue your interests.'

Addressing the problem

It's not specifically about recruiting women, but rather ensuring that the balance of staff is right. Employers are working hard to break down the entry barriers for women, helping to end their underrepresentation.

'To help people with their career decisions we hold an engineer's tea afternoon where people can meet female technical staff and ask any questions they may have,' says Jenny Bryant, emerging talent recruitment adviser at Arcadis. 'We have also held a women in engineering event which included guest speakers, networking, Q&A sessions and career advice.'

From Arcadis to BAE Systems, there are lots of employer initiatives to help women break into engineering, but according to Dawn it is legislative changes, financial incentives for study, and a concerted programme of change within the industry that's needed.

'The future will include disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, advanced materials, robotics, and the use of big data, and it's time that we took similarly disruptive steps to ensure that our young people understand their role in creating this future,' she argues.

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