It’s Time to Tackle Career Stereotypes and Get More Women to Enter ‘Male Professions’

I believe that International Women’s Day provided a perfect opportunity to highlight the lack of women in typically male professions like engineering and technology.

Currently, just six per cent of engineers are female, one of the lowest percentages in Europe. And, women are also under-represented in occupations such as science, graphic design and broadcasting, according to the Department for Work and Pensions’ Not Just for Boys campaign.

One of my big aims for the year ahead as I become President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) is to be more effective at inspiring the next generation of engineers and technicians. It’s no secret that engineering and technology are facing a significant skills shortfall. Engineering employers are projected to need 1.82 million people with engineering skills from 2012-2022 (according to Engineering UK 2015 The State of Engineering report) so there is a big job to be done.

It is hard to know when the right moment is to pitch engineering to young people. There is such a wide variety of options available and engineering is intrinsic in everything you look at from fashion to power-generation to biomedicine. There are also jobs that haven’t even been invented yet that will eventually be available to today’s young people. And, while it is currently difficult to get a job in other sectors, in engineering jobs are available and it is reasonable to assume that trend will continue given the global infrastructure projects taking place. In engineering you get a better shot at employment than other types of careers.

But, the lack of women in engineering is a very significant problem. The shocking reality is that the UK is only accessing a small proportion of the workforce in this vital sector.

Why is it proving so difficult attracting women in to engineering? I think it’s down to a combination of things, including careers advice girls are given in schools.

When I was at school, I didn’t get great career advice. I was doing well but I wasn’t encouraged to consider engineering. It was only after I was accepted onto a BBC training scheme and introduced to broadcast engineering that I began to be exposed to the potential it offered. I really loved working in TV and radio. From the BBC, I went to ITV, then I did a stint in independent commercial radio before eventually ending up at Sony.

Schools have a role to play and need to do more to instil girls with the confidence to opt for science and maths at A-level, and employers need to do more to make their approach to recruitment and retention more female friendly.

It’s also about the lack of inspirational engineering role models for girls. That’s why my organisation – the IET – runs the annual Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards. These awards recognise the achievements of female talent in engineering and the main aim is to encourage and inspire others to enter the profession. The award winners become great ambassadors for women in engineering by promoting the profession widely throughout industry and in schools and universities.

When I started in engineering I was very against events or quotas to highlight the lack of women in business. However, 20 or 30 years on, the number of female engineers remains worryingly low, despite the best efforts of all kinds of different organisations.

Increasing the number of women in engineering and science isn’t only a feminist issue – there is a compelling business case for it too. There simply aren’t enough engineers to meet expected demand over the next decade. So the time has come to create a step change. Otherwise we risk many more years of seeing women excluded from creative, rewarding, interesting and challenging careers in certain sectors.

Diversity can be a very emotive issue and it is proving hard to shift subconscious social attitudes, stereotypes, and ingrained habits in schools and companies. Diversity needs to be on everyone’s agenda, not just women’s, and will only be achieved when we all have a better understanding of the unconscious bias that we have as individuals, employers and collectively as a nation.

Put simply, good practice that creates a level playing field for women is also generally good for everyone. We will all benefit from measures such as flexible working, better pay and a more inclusive culture.

But if we have roughly 50 per cent of the population who do equally well in school and university at technical subjects, who appear to join engineering in much larger numbers in some other countries, but we’re only getting about 6 per cent into the engineering workforce in the UK – something is undeniably going wrong.

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