Meg Munn: Engineering a future beyond the stereotypes

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To meet the skill requirements of the UK economy, we will have to get something in the region of 800,000 people interested in becoming scientists, engineers and technologists by 2020.

If we don’t, we will fall behind in the global race, with all the negative implications that has for jobs and personal earnings. It will be a challenge.

But if we are to have a hope of succeeding, we have to attract girls as well as boys. At the moment, around nine per cent of our engineers are female – there is no way we can generate the number of scientists and engineers we need without addressing this.

However this growing need does give us an opportunity to make South Yorkshire the first choice for young women who wish to study and work in these industries. Yorkshire’s first university technical college, in Sheffield, is doing just that.

Since UTC Sheffield opened in 2013, I have been impressed that their leadership team ensured from the start that young women were encouraged to pursue careers in science, engineering and technology (SET).

However children learn early just what a “woman’s job” and a “man’s job” are and make choices accordingly. If girls have never seen or never heard of a woman inventing something or fixing something, will they dream about doing that job when they are older?

Having role models to inspire and motivate young people to study for SET careers is vital.

UTC Sheffield get this. They have just launched a new film, Girls Making the Future, to promote career and study opportunities for young women. It features current and former female engineering students along with women who work as scientists, engineers or technologists.

One barrier to girls’ choices may be parents – research shows that they are the main influencers for a girl’s career choice. So those who view UTCs as a route to a range of masculine career opportunities are unlikely to encourage their daughters to apply. Such stereotyping limits girls’ choices. To help overcome this, UTC Sheffield have developed links with groups such as Women in Science Engineering at Technology at Sheffield Hallam University. This group does fantastic work in challenging stereotypes.

Many employers are experiencing difficulties in recruiting suitably qualified staff. They stress the need for young people to develop their understanding and gain some experience of the day-to-day demands of the workplace.

The UTC has developed analytical, problem solving and leadership skills along with rigorous academic preparation.

More than 40 local employers support UTC Sheffield; they provide mentoring, set curriculum projects and offer work experience. Initiatives like these give students the opportunity to meet people “in the know” and are invaluable. And the UTC is already reaping the benefits of this work.

A total of 440 young people are currently on the roll at UTC Sheffield. Of those, 78 are female – which equates to 18 per cent of all students, up from 14 per cent last year.

Students start at UTC Sheffield in either Year 10 (aged 14) or Year 12 (aged 16). The achievements are particularly clear if we look at this year’s Year 10 students – of whom 30 per cent are girls.

All of these have taken the daunting step of moving schools when most are only 14-years-old. This is testament to the wide range of outreach work done by UTC Sheffield to persuade girls that science, engineering and technology is not just for boys.

A survey commissioned by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which involved responses from university technical colleges nationally, shows that girls at mainstream schools think boys have a much better chance of getting jobs in engineering.

Just 43 per cent say they have the same opportunities and as a result just three per cent would consider a career in engineering.

The picture is different at the UTC, where 65 per cent of girls believe they have the same job opportunities as boys in engineering. This trend continues in other male-dominated sectors, including technology, where three-quarters of girls believe they have the same job chances and in science the figure is higher still at 83 per cent.

On my last visit to the UTC, I spoke to three young women – two engineers and one creative and digital student – and was encouraged by the knowledge they had of the careers open to them. Their enthusiasm for the future was infectious.

Britain can lead in the great discoveries and advances that will determine our future and have a strong impact on our economic wellbeing. Engineering businesses alone have the potential to contribute an extra £27bn to the UK economy every year from 2020.

UTC Sheffield is one institution taking a positive role in shaping the future – we should all join in.

Meg Munn is MP for Sheffield Heeley and a campaigner for increasing the numbers of women in engineering.