Ben Fielding On An Industry In Crisis: Why We Need More Women In Engineering

 

 

In 2016, Engineering UK announced a severe crisis in recruitment. More people are leaving the engineering sector than entering. Even with the best-case scenario in mind (that is, given the lowest estimate of the numbers leaving), engineering’s future looks bleak: at 69,000 people abandoning the sector every year compared to around 46,000 apprentices and undergrads seeking to replace them.

 

It is thought that a combination of uncertainty around Brexit, along with rising wages in Eastern Europe, is playing a significant part in the crisis. After all, Britain has leaned heavily on its EU labour force in the recent past. Now that the world is changing, it is going to have to look elsewhere to fill the shortfall.

 

It just so happens that the UK is abundant with a powerful natural resource — the female segment of the population, who actually outnumber men by a slender margin.

 

The UK can no longer afford to neglect the female half of its population in engineering

 

We like to think of the UK as a hugely successful and progressive country, but remarkably it lags behind a lot of countries when it comes to the STEM fields. For example, the UK has the lowest number of women in the engineering sector out of any European country — with a figure of 11 per cent.

 

It even lags behind many North African countries, such as Tunisia and Algeria, and much of the Far East — including Malaysia and India.

 

No one is entirely sure how such a predicament has come about. Critics have argued that it is due to the UK’s arm’s length “live and let live” approach to business. While others have claimed that greater gender parity overseas is actually a symptom of fewer liberties for women — at least in the non-European cases. (They reckon that, with more personal freedoms, women naturally avoid STEM professions.)

 

Sarah Peers of the Women’s Engineering Society places the blame on Western attitudes to women; including negative stereotyping, and the encouragement of a pro-masculine, pro-male culture that discourages women from participating. Peers even says there is a “motherhood penalty” for expecting mothers, who cannot then compete with a male colleague and be available 24/7; and an “Old Boys Club” — a lack of female representation which makes it seem like there is no sense of belonging for women.

 

Throwing a female spanner in the works

 

If these are all obstacles, then can we do as a society to get around them? Peers believes more needs to be done to educate well-meaning and intentioned PR and HR departments in many of Britain’s engineering sectors.

 

Peers also proposes that we should realign our culture to that the child-centric duties don’t always automatically fall to women. Men should be encouraged to look after them all the same, this would help to reduce the motherhood “penalty”.

 

How we teach engineering to the different sexes is also something that should come under scrutiny. There is the old notion that women prefer ‘people’ over things — and vice versa for men. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant, because engineering is about both. The key in this regard, then, would be to reach out to women in a way that sticks with them.

 

One success story is how the Ashesi University in Ghana managed to foster a computer science programme with almost exactly 50 – 50 representation of both men and women. The University president claims this remarkable turnaround occurred after they shifted the focus of the course from problem-solving to talking more about how engineering can improve the lives of others.

 

More efforts also need to be done to encourage children at a much younger age. As it currently stands, engineering recruitment usually begins around the A-level age, but most organisations now agree that this encouragement should start much earlier, perhaps even at eight years old. One group, Early Years Engineer, even tries to spark an interest in primary school pupils as young as three. This new early years approach, should also be spearheaded with visible, charismatic female engineer role models.

 

And — perhaps most importantly of all — the number of hours that science is taught in schools should be drastically increased. As of 2016, it was only around two hours’ a week. This figure needs to come right up, for girls and boys.

 

If not just for engineering, then what about the UK economy?

 

There is still a long way to go before the UK achieves true gender parity, from issues such as the pay gap (which is a different matter altogether), to increasing female visibility and more.

 

But there are some people who are hesitant to implement the changes proposed here. Resistant to change is natural, but clearly something needs to be done to address the massive shortfall in engineers.

 

Even if the promise of filling the shortfall isn’t enough to win over the doubters, then perhaps the economic perspective is. Studies have revealed that the presence of a woman in the boardroom can boost overall performance by 54 per cent. This alone suggests that there really is some benefit to gender-diverse thinking.

 

And in 2018 the World Bank published its estimations that global gender parity across all the major sectors could increase the world economy by £120 trillion, and increase the global economy by 14 per cent.

 

But whatever the opinions are that divide us, we must all agree that something must be done to address the current crisis in British engineering.

 

 

This is a guest article, written by Ben Fielding of Weldwide. Weldwide is an architectural steel and structural engineering company, based in London, UK.

 

 

 




Share your thoughts with our community of game changers