Can Engineering Ever Solve Its Gender Inequality Problem?

31 Jul 10:00 by Jamie Silman


Having recently completed our very first engineering survey, there was one particular statistic that stood out to me - only 8% of the engineers we surveyed were women.

Given the increased awareness and support for change from companies and organisations throughout the sector, you might forgive me for thinking this issue was one that was being addressed – albeit slowly – but the numbers seem to tell a different story.

In 2018, Engineering UK reported that whilst 50% of GCSE physics entrants were female, but by the time students reached higher education, women represented just 16% of first degree students in engineering and technology, and only 8% of engineering apprenticeship starters.

With the shortfall of graduates already costing the UK economy an estimated £1.5bn a year, and with the demand for skilled workers predicted to continue to rise, it’s likely that this is a problem that’s going to get worse before it gets better.

So what’s causing the industry’s gender inequality issue?

Is Culture the Real Problem?

A survey conducted by the IET found that of 1,000 children aged nine to 16, fewer than one in 10 described a typical engineer as a woman.

Even in every day conversation, the word “engineer” typically conjures up images of middle-aged men in hi-vis jackets, hard hats and work-boots; working in dreary conditions in a factory or on a building site.

And while this outdated perception of the industry might go some way towards explaining why only a fraction of women join the industry, the problem doesn’t stop there.

Many of the initiatives created by corporations and organisations are aimed at older students or graduates who have already made the choice to focus on a STEM related topic, meaning that whilst this investment and focus is fantastic to see, it doesn’t address the problem at an early enough stage to really make a positive impact on the industry.

Increasing the number of women in senior positions, or offering perks that make it easier for mothers to return to work, all work towards addressing the issue based on the assumption that there are enough women entering engineering fields in the first place – and the figures all show that’s just not happening.

Time for A Rethink?

As a shortage of engineers is an industry-wide problem, perhaps it’s time for companies to work together to address the industry’s shortfall?

Rather than companies working individually to improve female representation within their own organisation, more emphasis could be put on increasing the number of talented female engineers in general.

Getting involved in projects created by organisations like the Women’s Engineering Society, or investing in school events that aim to inspire young women to consider a career in engineering, could help address the shortfall in years to come.

Scholarships and grants for female students choosing an engineering degree might help to encourage more young women to pursue careers in the industry in the medium term, while industry or skill transfer programs could bring the sector experienced professionals much more quickly.

Sadly, it seems that no one currently has the answers, and there’s no quick fix for the under-representation of women in engineering.

Despite it becoming more and more important for companies to increase investment in initiatives that will encourage the next generation of women to pursue a career in engineering, it’s likely to take many years for things to change, and there’s much more that needs to be done to really address the problem the industry is facing.

Can engineering ever solve its gender inequality problem?

I really hope so.

But one thing’s for sure – the industry has a lot of catching up to do!