Jane Robinson: More women are needed at the cutting edge of industry and technology

AT 11am today, in Sheffield's Cutlers Hall, I will take on the role of Member of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire '“ in layman's terms, effectively becoming a board member of this prominent and esteemed institution.

How can more young women be persuaded to become engineers?
How can more young women be persuaded to become engineers?

Anyone involved in the steel industry in and around Sheffield will be aware of the Company of Cutlers, a highly influential organisation steeped in centuries of history. It’s a real honour to be chosen to become one of the Company’s 33 members. It’s an opportunity to support manufacturing across the region, and ensure that the voices of the 450 or so Freeman who make up the wider Company are heard.

As one of only four female members, it’s clear that a focus for my efforts has to be around encouraging more women into our industry. When it comes to female leadership and gender balance, manufacturing has a long way to go.

The fact that so few women hold senior positions within the Company of Cutlers is a reflection of the industry at large, rather than the organisation itself. We can’t expect women to be given top roles if we’re not feeding the pipeline – and as a society, we’re falling short when it comes to inspiring girls to take up careers in engineering and manufacturing.

In a world where we have our second female PM, with Angela Merkel leading Germany and a woman likely to take the keys to the White House next month, girls should feel capable of anything. And yet they don’t seem to have the confidence to enter the male-dominated world of engineering.

Currently, women make up just 14.4 per cent of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) workforce; a figure that drops further to nine per cent for the engineering industry alone. In 2014, only four per cent of the Fellows of the Royal Academy of Engineering were women, which puts our 12 per cent female Members of the Company of Cutlers into context.

But why should it even matter? If girls don’t want to work in manufacturing or engineering and would rather focus on other career options, why should we care? Quite simply, our economic prosperity as region, and a country, could depend on it. This isn’t just a feminist issue or a something we need to look at because of fairness. Study after study confirms that businesses with higher levels of gender diversity perform better.

Right now, our industry is missing out on a massive amount of skill and ability because we’re not accessing half the talent pool. The success of manufacturing industry matters, especially in Yorkshire where 11 per cent of all jobs are in manufacturing. Imagine if we doubled the amount of talent coming in to the industry. It could be transformational.

Last week, a report by Deloitte revealed that STEM subjects could be the key to closing the gender pay gap. Women who study STEM subjects and then pursue careers in related areas have the potential to increase their earnings both in their early working lives and in later years.

We also need to make it clear that today’s manufacturing isn’t all grease and grimy workshops. There is huge opportunity for creativity within engineering and this needs explaining more clearly to girls from a young age.

At Cutting Technologies, we’ve worked on projects for Paris Fashion Week, Mulberry and the Globe Theatre in London. Manufacturing can be creative and exciting but it often isn’t presented like that to impressionable young girls.

The superb UTCs in Sheffield, and now in Leeds, will make both boys and girls more aware of what modern engineering looks like, but we also need to go further and get that message out to other secondary schools and primaries.

Finally, we need role models. We learn and are inspired by watching others. Women in senior manufacturing positions have a critical role to play in ensuring girls are encouraged to believe and achieve. We need to trail-blaze, set an example and show young women that stellar jobs do exist which reward both financially, intellectually and emotionally.

For me personally, today is a real career highlight – but it comes with clear responsibility. One of the key roles for Company of Cutlers when it was incorporated in 1624 was to record and administer apprenticeships to ensure 
the continuing success of the industry.

I look forward to using my new platform to continue this focus on the future of the industry by showing young women that manufacturing really isn’t ‘just for boys’.

Jane Robinson is director and co-founder of Barnsley-based Cutting Technologies.