Mind the Gap: Tackling Female Underrepresentation in Engineering

03 April 2024

Gender disparity is still a major concern across all parts of the UK engineering sphere. As well as there being a shortfall in the actual workforce, females still only constitute a relatively small proportion of the students and apprentices looking to pursue engineering careers. 

EPDT’s Editor, Mike Green, recently discussed the issue with EngineeringUK’s CEO, Dr. Hilary Leevers.

Admittedly, the number of female engineers has been steadily increasing over the course of the last decade. Nevertheless, it remains a long way from where it ought to be - yet to get past the 20% mark proportionally speaking. 

“Women are the most underrepresented group here by a big margin,” states Dr. Leevers. “Though ethnic minorities, people from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds and those with disabilities aren’t adequately accounted for within engineering compared to the workforce in general, and addressing this is still undoubtedly essential, in these cases representation is now out by only a few percentage points. For women, however, this is far more acute, with it needing to nearly treble before we get even close to reaching parity.”

According to the most recent Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) figures, the female proportion of engineering and technology undergraduate entrants in UK universities is 18.5% (in contrast to them constituting around 56.5% of undergraduates across all subjects). Things are slightly worse when it comes to apprenticeships, with just short of 16% of places being filled by females. 
Benefits of greater diversity/inclusivity in engineering 
The engineering sector is becoming much more appreciative of the need to recruit individuals from a broader cross section of society. There is a strong business case for this - as having staff that can draw on different respective backgrounds and articulate a wider range of viewpoints will help companies to enrich their operations. Having more diverse engineering teams will mean the products they are developing or their ability to solve problems will be enhanced, and better gender balance will be a big part of this. 

“The companies we work with are really genuine about wanting to ensure underrepresented groups have proper support and that they can see continued progression,” Dr. Leevers explains. “This isn’t about box-ticking or being seen in a good light. These companies actually understand the value diversity brings to their commercial success.”      

“When I speak to specialist recruiters, they tell me their clients are constantly pushing them to find people from diverse backgrounds,” she continues. “As the sector looks to become more ethically minded, the extra insight that diversity offers, with better understanding of different markets, experience of particular problems and suchlike, is going to be paramount.”

Having more diversity in the workplace is likely to necessitate changes in corporate mindset. “It’s a big cultural and organisational shift,” states Dr. Leevers. “Companies must be more accommodating, usually putting flexibilities in place that in the past they’d have perceived as being compromises, such as more scope for telecommuting or less rigid working hours. But they know the benefits they’ll get back through greater inclusivity are worth it.”      

Changes needed in the classroom
Despite female pupils being more likely to gain the top grades in STEM subjects when it comes to GCSEs and A levels, a significantly smaller number of them take these subjects than their male counterparts. Research conducted by EngineeringUK shows that in secondary education only 22% of school pupils taking both mathematics and physics (seen by most as the foundation of engineering disciplines) are female. 

Caption: EngineeringUK’s Dr. Hilary Leevers is optimistic about growing female engineering uptake, but is adamant that there’s no room for complacency
Caption: EngineeringUK’s Dr. Hilary Leevers is optimistic about growing female engineering uptake, but is adamant that there’s no room for complacency

As Dr. Leevers sees it, there’s usually confidence issues at the heart of this, and these are probably due to there not being enough affirming influences (from family members, teachers, etc.). “What we particularly find is young women don’t feel as assured about their science and maths capabilities as they should. Even though they may be skilled in such subjects and perform well, the tendency is for them to underestimate themselves.” 

“Exposure to gender stereotypes unfortunately starts at a shockingly young age, and this can mean girls shut off possible avenues at an early stage in their personal development. These are things we need to address, making sure girls have greater self-esteem and that they don’t limit themselves to what society thinks they should be.”
Another point she raises here is that studies have shown female pupils will generally be more impacted upon by poor teaching than males. This is worrying, given that often (due to shortages) those teaching mathematics and physics may not have originally specialised in such subjects.   

Outreach efforts
With engineering not directly being a part of the school curricula, it’s clearly difficult for either gender to have a good grasp of the true nature of engineering, and what potential it has for providing rewarding future careers. This is why STEM outreach programs are so important - underlining how engineering can be creative and have societal purpose, as that will be more motivating than simply salary alone. If these programs are to succeed in getting widespread female buy-in, then they need to be suitably orchestrated.  

EngineeringUK’s own research shows that hands-on activities are much more effective at inspiring young females (and males too) than passive intake (through listening to teachers or reading books). The activities must be correctly aligned with the age of the children they’re intended for. With younger children, there must be an element of fun involved. At this stage it’s more about awareness and making it clear that all options are open to them, so they don’t close anything off. In secondary schools, it’s much more about finding out what pupils are interested in or where they have particular skills, then looking at matching these with potential STEM-based career pathways. 

Just carrying out occasional outreach efforts isn’t enough. In order to have real bearing, a sustained engagement program is required that continues throughout primary and secondary education. 

Accessible role models
The value of positive exemplars cannot be underestimated either, as these will offer affirmation and provide a more accurate perception of what engineering is actually about. As girls get older, cultural/societal factors, combined with family influences plus peer pressure, can make engineering appear less attractive, with it becoming harder for them to imagine themselves as engineers. Having an ongoing role model presence proves a lot more effective than brief short-term interactions (which are likely to only have a transitory effect). Also, near-peer role models (such as older pupils, college students, or professional engineers taking the initial steps in their own careers) are much more likely to chime with youngsters than older exemplars (who simply won’t be as relatable). “If kids can see someone that’s not so much different to them getting involved in engineering, it’ll be far easier for them to believe that they can do the same,” Dr. Leevers notes.   

On joining the workforce
Support cannot stop after females have graduated from university or completed their apprenticeships, it must continue once they’ve entered the employment market. As with other underrepresented groups, there are higher incidence of female drop-outs in the engineering sector. “Traditionally employee retention rates have been unacceptable low,” Dr. Leevers comments. “Now, with more diverse peer groups in companies, this is hopefully starting to change. The cohorts being recruited today have more females coming in. So they no longer feel as isolated and can build up a support network within their peer group.”
Making engineering equally appealing to both sexes still seems some way off, but the auspices certainly look much better than they were for previous generations. Regular engagement throughout primary and secondary education can raise girls’ engineering aspirations, so that a greater number of them are interested in taking up apprenticeships or enrolling on relevant university courses. That needs to then be followed up by them going into conducive working environments which are geared up to offering fulfilling careers and ensuring long-term retention.  

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