Last year some 5.5 million people were employed in engineering. Only a tiny fraction of them were women. In fact the figure hovers around one in 10 – the lowest proportion across the whole of the European Union and the reason for the lack of interest is simple.
Teenage girls in Britain think a career in engineering will be dull, far too technical and crucially that when you compare it to becoming a lawyer or an accountant it doesn’t pay well.
While most other industries have achieved greater equality between the sexes, engineering has struggled to shrug off its white, male-dominated image and according to those now trying to redress the balance that comes with a cost.
The UKRC, set up to champion the importance of women in science, puts the loss to the UK economy as a result of female engineers and scientists either being vastly over qualified for the positions in which they work or not employed in the field at all at £2bn.
“Girls understand what doctors and vets and pharmacists are so they can see themselves in these roles,” says Terry Marsh, a former director of the Women into Science and Engineering campaign. “What we need are for engineers who can emotionally engage with students at the same times as explaining their career path and decisions. Only then might we have a hope of counteracting the negative whispering that surrounds the word engineer, which is particularly potent for girls. In the past television has made forensic science attractive and if the mainstream media could start doing the same for engineers we might start to see an increase in those entering the field.”
There are exceptions. Like Katy Deacon, an energy engineer with Kirklees Council. Previously named Young Woman Engineer of the Year, Katy has also leant her support to open up the field to more females.
“Taking someone’s problem and creating a solution – that’s what I get a buzz from,” she said. “I help spearhead the council’s drive to improve energy efficiency in buildings and make a greater use of renewable energy. The work is always interesting and helps improve the way we live.”
However, UKRC along with groups like Talent 2030, which has come up with an 18-year plan to increase the number of female engineering graduates, are now stepping up the campaign.
One of the main criticisms has been that schools don’t encourage enough students and in particular girls, to continue maths and physics until they are 18. In 2009, of those who achieved a grade A in physics at GCSE, 93 per cent dropped the subject.
“Unless the UK is developing thousands of female engineers by 2030, it could well drift downwards in the advanced manufacturing and engineering league table,” says a spokesman for Talent 2030. “A nation is only as good as its talent. This was as true in the first Industrial Revolution as it will be in the next and how a nation’s education system nurtures, develops and rounds out talent will be a mark of its economic success.
“The manufacturing and engineering intake of 2030 are being born now and the management teams who will be waiting to recruit them are just starting university.
“The intervening period will pass in a blink of an eye, but if we don’t start laying the foundations for highly successful, globally competitive businesses now, we could be left behind forever.”