Adventures in STEM: Women in Engineering

Author : Mark Gradwell, Consultant Editor

24 July 2017

Mark Gradwell, Consultant Editor of EPDT
Mark Gradwell, Consultant Editor of EPDT

In addition to overall low uptake of STEM subjects, women are also significantly under-represented in the engineering sector. This not only exacerbates the skills gap we already face, but also means an important perspective and source of talent is not being reflected in the work our engineering communities do.

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In addition to STEM initiatives targeted at engaging and inspiring young people as a whole, attention must also increase to help address and close this gender gap...

The numbers are shocking: according to statistics compiled by WES (The Women’s Engineering Society), only 9% of the UK engineering workforce is female, the lowest proportion in Europe. Only 16% of UK engineering and technology undergraduates are female (compared to 30% in India) – and the proportion has remained virtually static over the last five years. To compound matters, female STEM graduates are less likely than their male counterparts to go on to take up job roles in engineering.

Making progress on improving this gender imbalance (not to mention, addressing other diversity issues) would certainly help address the skills gap, opening up a rich vein of talent that is currently being neglected. But it would also help ensure that an important perspective and skillset that is evidently currently lacking from the engineering workforce is accessed and taken advantage of, for society’s benefit.

Fortunately, there are a number of organisations and initiatives that are focused on tackling this challenge. The Women’s Engineering Society is a professional network of women engineers, scientists and technologists set up to offer inspiration, support and professional development. Its aim is to support and inspire women to achieve as engineers, scientists and leaders by encouraging STEM education, and supporting industry on gender diversity and inclusion. In partnership with other societies, it offers mentoring and networking opportunities for women in engineering.

After establishing National Women in Engineering Day in 2014 to celebrate the society’s 95th anniversary, in 2017 WES expanded the scope to launch International Women in Engineering Day (IWED). IWED takes place annually on 23rd June and is an important focal point for an awareness campaign to raise the profile of women in engineering and focus attention on the amazing career opportunities available to females in STEM. In 2017, WES worked with The Daily Telegraph to compile and publish the Top 50 Women in Engineering under 35 list, featuring the UK’s top rising female stars of engineering, selected from more than 500 nominations.

The IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology) is also focused on this issue, with its IET Women’s Network, which was set up to support women in industry and academia, alter perceptions and place STEM on the radar of parents, teachers and children, in addition to assisting organisations and universities in attracting and retaining female talent. It also initiated the high profile #9percentisnotenough awareness-raising campaign on social media and hosts its long-running Young Woman Engineer of the Year awards.

WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) is a campaign for gender balance in science, technology and engineering that aims to enable and energise industry and education around increasing the participation, contribution and success of women in STEM. It offers resources, advice, training and consultancy to educators and recruiters to support these goals.

GoldieBlox is an example of a company also working to address this issue, describing itself as “disrupting the pink aisle in toy stores and challenging gender stereotypes with the world’s first girl engineer character”. Through integrating STEM principles into storytelling, GoldieBlox creates toys, books, apps, videos, animation and merchandise designed to engage, inspire and empower girls in their STEM interests.

As with the overall STEM skills gap, this gender gap will not be simple to close. It will require recognition, commitment and sustained concerted effort from industry, academia and government, in addition to the good work of the organisations outlined here. But the rewards for engineering and society are potentially huge.

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