We need quotas to fix the lack of female engineers

Starting early, removing the stigma and promoting the wider sector will also encourage more women into engineering, says Denise Smiles.

by Denise Smiles
Last Updated: 22 Apr 2016

Way back in 1919, one of the first editions of The Woman Engineer magazine highlighted that only 6% of engineers in the UK were female. Almost 100 years later, that statistic was still the same. In other industrialised European countries, such as Germany, France and Sweden, women account for 15-25% of all engineers. In the UK we continue to lag behind. 
While this could be seen primarily as a feminist issue, the dearth of women in engineering is bad for business and represents a significant barrier to the UK’s future economic performance. Indeed, the Royal Academy of Engineering has estimated that 1.28 million science, engineering and technology professionals are needed by 2020 to support the UK’s economic recovery.
So, what’s to be done to fix this chronic problem? I believe that radical action needs to be taken now to address the shortage of untapped female talent in engineering. Here are four ideas:

1. Inspire early 

Although pushing engineering early in school is obviously important, we should look to influence and inspire children from an even younger age. From Fireman Sam to Action Man and even Old Macdonald, our desire to work in a specific role or industry can start at a very early age and the media children are exposed to can shape their perceptions.
We need to get children playing with toy chemistry sets and plastic workbenches to broaden their horizons and the media has a key role to play here. We should see more stories on CBBC’s Newsround about engineering companies and there should be profiles of businesswomen in girls’ magazines to inspire them to look beyond the immediate world around them.

Dame Athene Donald, the incoming head of British Science, recently bemoaned the gender stereotyping of children’s toys from an early age. Let’s at least give children a real choice, rather than just give girls dolls and boys Meccano, was her plea to BBC Radio 4 listeners – and I have to agree. 

Too often the characters girls are exposed to fit within the traditional female stereotype and, while this is beginning to change, it’s not happening soon enough. Let’s swap tiaras for tool belts to ensure all children, regardless of gender, get a good understanding and appreciation of what engineering is from an early age.

2. Remove the stigma 

When people mention engineering, many automatically think of boring, dirty work. It’s an unappealing word – especially for women – and that puts a huge percentage of people of all genders off working in the sector.
Engineering, however, isn’t boring. It’s a sexy industry with huge amounts of potential. Sony, for example, is an engineering company, as are Formula One teams and architectural firms. All manufacturing has elements of engineering associated with it – even the likes of Apple and Microsoft.
Maybe we need to rename the industry – engineering doesn’t quite cut it anymore. I’d call it innovation technology if I could. This would make jobs more appealing to women and make the whole industry more accessible.

3. Sell the wider sector 

Think engineering means being an engineer? Think again. A huge percentage of the staff at my company work in project management, technology development, marketing, HR, management, administration, logistics and other roles. What’s more, a high number of these are female – across the whole company 50% of our mangers and 30% of our directors are women.
Why should we constantly focus on just inspiring women to become engineers? We can also inspire them to work in the engineering sector more broadly.
Very few of our staff are actually trained engineers, just talented people who want to work in a fast-paced and vibrant industry. Does working as a marketer in oil & gas rule you out of the engineering sector? Of course not. So we simply need to inspire interest in the sector, rather than just focusing on the still broad path of becoming an ‘engineer’.

4. The quota conundrum 

I don’t tend to like quotas in industry, preferring to promote people based on their skills and attitude. But there may be an exception where women in engineering are concerned. It’s obvious that the UK, more than our European cousins, suffers from an issue of culture where female engineers are concerned. I think we do need to jolt our workplaces to create a sea change in attitude.

Short-term quotas could be used to kick-start a new approach. Countries like Sweden have shown this can work and I think we should look seriously at such a system in the UK.

Denise Smiles is CEO of OMS, a technology business that specialises in the precise measurement of pipes and other components.

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