STEM Matters: Guest column – The changing landscape for women in engineering

Author : Tony Lewin | Principal | Newcastle College

03 May 2020

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Growth in the engineering industry has seen the UK workplace become more diverse – it’s clear that attitudes in industry are changing, as more and more women opt for a career in engineering.

This guest column was originally featured in the May 2020 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. Sign up to receive your own copy each month.

In 2013, the UK had the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at under 10%, while Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus led the way with almost 30%. By 2015, women still made up just 9% of the engineering workforce – but by 2017, that figure had grown to 11%. And according to the latest figures produced by EngineeringUK, 12.4% of engineers in the UK are now women, representing a 25% jump in numbers in just a few short years. Tony Lewin, Principal at Newcastle College describes the changing landscape the college is seeing for women in engineering...

Across science, technology, engineering & mathematics (STEM), some of the most influential figures are women. For instance, British chemist, Rosalind Franklin is among the trailblazers for women in engineering, having played a key role in the understanding of DNA in the late 1940s. More recently, American computer scientist, Katie Bouman has been celebrated for engineering the first image of a black hole, after leading the creation of an algorithm that resulted in a visualisation of a supermassive black hole in 2019.

Women sign up to engineering courses

With increasing numbers of teenage girls being inspired by industry leaders, there has also been an upturn in females signing up to educational courses. Universities & Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) statistics show that over 24,000 females graduated from core STEM subjects in 2018 – almost 2,000 more than in 2015.

Newcastle College has seen a 60% rise in the number of females signing up to engineering courses compared to the previous year. The launch of new courses, including its Foundation Degree in Rail Engineering and an Offshore Renewables & Subsea Engineering Diploma has coincided with the rising interest in the industry.

A college spokesperson said: “It’s encouraging to see the rise in girls signing up to engineering subjects and I hope this is something that we see continue. Our own focus on showcasing female students and the push to encourage more girls into STEM is definitely having a positive effect. It’s fantastic when girls approach us at Open Events about engineering, even if they seem a little hesitant – it often just takes a bit of encouragement.”

A case in point

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Charlotte Palmer is studying for an Offshore Renewables & Subsea Engineering Diploma at Newcastle College and said her decision to study engineering came as a shock to her family. “My parents didn’t really have a lot to do with my decision,” she says. “They encouraged me to make up my own mind, but I think they were a bit surprised.”

Ms Palmer, who lives close to one of the UK’s leading offshore energy support bases at Port of Blyth, said she signed up to the course after seeing the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign – which, although centred around women in sport, reminds women that they can do whatever they want. She added: “I suppose that made me think more about options I might not have had before. I told my friends I was enrolling on this course and lots of them still said ‘that’s for boys’ or ‘I don’t want to be the only girl’. But the way I see it is, I’m only the only girl because that’s what other girls have been afraid of.

“I’ve visited the Energy Academy and met girls on other energy and engineering courses, not just my own. They had similar experiences to me. Most girls do still think that way and I’m not sure how to change that.”

Smashing stereotypes & building for the future

Tia Jones is in the first year of a Foundation Degree in Rail Engineering at Newcastle College and has already landed a job as a track worker with Ganymede Solutions. “With my dad being a joiner, I’ve always been interested in engineering,” said Ms Jones. “My brother and I had always played with Lego when we were younger and I had helped my dad fix cars, so engineering has always been in my background.”

Throughout British Science Week in March, the British Science Association led a ‘smashing stereotypes’ campaign to tackle stereotypes in STEM. It highlighted the broad range of jobs and careers available, using the #EverydayScientist hashtag to promote awareness across social channels. With the campaign targeting diversity awareness, it explored ethnic minorities working in STEM as well as gender stereotypes, and more widely, the desire to create a more inclusive workforce.

As the number of women in STEM careers is set to reach one million in 2020, it’s clear that women will play a major role in the future of these industries. Already, women make up around 30% of the world’s researchers, and the rise of new and more varied courses will only bolster this development.

This column is part of an occasional series of guest columns for STEM Matters. If you have an interesting viewpoint on STEM topics to share with EPDT readers, get in touch with Editor, Mark Gradwell at mark.gradwell@imlgroup.co.uk


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