Dealing with the deficit - women in engineering

Materials World magazine
27 Nov 2012

A recent study by the Royal Academy of Engineering identified the need for 100,000 STEM graduates a year to maintain the status quo in the UK, with British universities falling short of this target by 10%. Compounding the problem, almost half co-ed maintained schools in the UK do not send even one girl to study A-Level physics. And yet women have successful careers in the sector. What can be done to redress the balance? Louise Kittle spoke to women working in materials science and engineering about the issues facing the industry.  

The panel - 

  • Maria Felice Non Destructive Evaluation EngD student at University of Bristol/Rolls Royce plc. 
  • Diane Mather Senior Geotechnical Engineer at Aurecon, based in Brisbane, Australia. 
  • Eliana Fu R&D Services Engineer at Timet HTL, based in Nevada, USA. 
  • Fiona Robinson Principal Researcher at Cogent Power Limited (Tata Steel), based in Wales. 
  • Louise Ramsden-Hare Product Metallurgist at Timet, based in Wales. 
  • Angela Shackcloth Electronic Materials Specialist and MBA student, based in Italy. 
  • Jenni Tilley Lindemann Visiting Scholar, Biomedical Engineering, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA. 
  • Dame Julia Stretton Higgins Former Principal of the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College London. 
  • Sarah Boad Membership Development Manager at IOM3.

Were there many other women on your undergraduate course at university? 

FR On my undergraduate course about 10% of the students were women. During my PhD, there were a few other women in my research group and also doing postgraduate study in the Mechanical Engineering department, but hardly any female undergraduates. The percentage of undergraduate women who progressed to postgraduate study was higher than for men, although I’m not sure whether this stemmed from a true desire to do a PhD or a reflection of the difficulty of getting a graduate materials science job as a woman. 

JT At undergraduate level, I think there were a few more women on my materials science course than on my engineering course, and definitely fewer than on the English literature and medicine courses my friends were doing, but I can’t say I really noticed it on a day-to-day basis. During my DPhil, there were a lot more women within my research groups, particularly on the clinical side, probably because of the biology-bias. 

SB I was the only woman doing metallurgy – although there were a few others doing materials science. 

AS I think the department had its highest intake of women the year I started – there were seven women out of a total of 21 students. This ratio was massive compared to the mechanical engineering department, for example, where it was approximately one female student to every 200 males. 

DM By the time I graduated there were six women in a class of around 30. 

EF No, there were only two others on my first degree, but more of a balance on my Masters and PhD courses, although that was at a different college. 

JSH I studied physics – quite a common route into an engineering career for my generation. There were 10 women in a class of 200. 

What do you think prevents more women from choosing to become engineers? 

FR I think there is a perception that engineering is not in the same league as medicine or law (where there are visible female role models), and that engineering is the consolation prize if you study science A-Levels but don’t get into a medicine degree course. Many women think engineering careers involve heavy manual work or hostile environments for most of the working day. Some schools are poorly informed about engineering careers and think that engineering (usually as a vocational course, not degree) is only for less academic students. My school careers teacher suggested that I should apply for Psychology or Sociology as this was a good choice for girls who had made the mistake of studying science and maths at A-Level – so you need to be stubborn, determined and confident enough to stand your ground, which is not always the case when you’re 18. 

JSH There is a lack of knowledge about what a career in engineering means. Cultural and peer pressure also don’t help, and there is a lack of good teaching of maths and physics at a young age in schools. 

AS It seems that many people don’t know what engineering is, having the general perception that we work in dirty surroundings or are locked away in laboratories. I used to be a Science and Engineering Ambassador (SEA) and promoted STEM subjects through science days in local schools and larger public events. I distinctly remember an open day we held at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford. Because of the venue, schools were taking the opportunity to combine a history field trip with the science-based activities we were running. In my area, we were building rockets when I overheard one of the (female) adults accompanying a school group say, ‘Well, I don’t know why we’re here, what a waste! The children’s time would be much better spent learning history.’ Contending with peer pressure is difficult enough, but these attitudes make our job even harder. 

SB I think the main issue is a lack of understanding of what being an engineer involves. Although in my current role at IOM3, I’ve discovered that many female members are very keen to work in schools to inform all pupils about science and engineering, and give careers advice. 

MF Many people think only of hands-on engineering and jobs that are actually technicians’ jobs not professional engineers’ jobs. Many of my family members associated mechanical engineering with being a car mechanic. People don’t realise how creative and innovative you can be as an engineer. I think more girls would choose engineering if they were aware of the opportunities it offers to use skills such as drawing and public speaking, and the opportunities it can offer to travel the world and to move horizontally and vertically within an organisation. 

DM It can be very intimidating working in a male-dominated environment. The work often involves remote areas, long hours and time away from home. It is very hard to balance that with having a family. Plus, some of the places you go to are very remote, dirty and lack home comforts. 

JT I’m not sure, but I do think the problem may start earlier than university. During my A-Levels, I was possibly the only girl doing maths, chemistry and physics and further maths. While I had no problem with it, I can imagine some girls might have been put off taking the course if they thought they would be the only girl in the class. 

EF Girls are not offered the choices and not encouraged to study the core subjects in secondary school. But students in general, no matter their gender, don’t seem to want to do engineering. In the UK, the term engineer is used to denote the guy who turns up to fix your washing machine. In Europe and elsewhere, engineering is a respected profession. We devalue it in the UK, which I think is terrible. 

Do you see more or fewer females working in your field than you did when you first started working?

FR In works-based technical and engineering roles there are a similar number of women to when I started, although there are many female researchers in the corporate R&D function. Very few women do similar roles to mine in process technology, improving, innovating and implementing new technology. There are highly skilled women in metallurgy and materials science, but they work further from the process in areas such as product development and product design. 

JSH I work in an academic department. There are more female academics in engineering departments but not dramatically more and in some disciplines the numbers are still woefully low. Although numbers of undergraduates have increased, it is still not enough. 

SB When I visit universities to talk to new students, it is great to see many more women students than when I was studying. I also see more women when I run membership clinics in industry. 

AS Unfortunately, I have met very few during my 10-year career. Within the companies I have worked for and visited, I can only recall a small number of female engineers. 

DM I see significantly more female graduates, but fewer women returning to work in engineering after starting a family. 

EF About the same.

Just 8.7% of UK engineers are female – the lowest percentage in the EU. What would you say are the barriers, perceived or real, for women entering engineering? 

FR There are few role models for women in engineering or materials visible to school-age girls as they make their subject choices, so it is hard to imagine how doing science subjects at school translates to an engineering or materials career. Peer pressure is also a powerful influence. I think there is a perception that an engineering career is not compatible with having a family, but it’s like any other job where compromises and choices have to be made, it is not impossible.   

JT While at the school leavers’ level girls may be put off entering an industry or studying a subject they perceive to be a traditionally male-dominated subject, at the academic or post-university level I don’t think we can put it down to this old stereotype of ‘women are put off because they think it’s a male career’. The recent outrage at the ‘Science: It’s a Girl Thing’ campaign video (later withdrawn) shows that those women who do work in STEM have no problem with working in a sector that some would consider ‘un-girly’. Rather, I think we should consider what jobs women with STEM talents and women trained as engineers are choosing to go and do instead, and why they are making those choices. For example, I’d be interested to know what the drop-off rate is from reading engineering at university to following on into an engineering career, and what those women themselves would say their reasons are. 

SB When I was applying for jobs in 1979, I could only get second interviews for R&D roles not jobs on the factory floor, whereas today women engineers are working in every area in industry and academia. As more women do degrees in engineering there will be more women around, which will hopefully mean more female managers and role models. Companies need to get better at keeping women engineers as they take career breaks – making sure they come back to work by encouraging flexible working. We also need more women to apply for professional qualifications – only 3% of FIMMMs are women – there are many more women out there eligible for fellowship, but they don’t apply. 

MF I think there are few real barriers nowadays, and it is more a matter of girls not being aware of what engineering is, not choosing to pursue it and not being encouraged to pursue it by family and friends. One truism is that because of the low proportion of female engineers, you will not have many female colleagues. This might put some women off, and so the problem continues… 

AS In general, materials science and engineering is an unknown. Ask anybody about engineering and they usually name mechanical, electrical, civil or chemical engineering. This hurdle can be especially difficult at recruitment stage – if you mention materials, people think you’ve studied or are working in the textiles or fashion industries. I’ve known female engineering graduates who went on to different careers due to peer pressure and perceptions about pay, conditions and opportunities. They may have changed their minds if they had been aware of the mentoring schemes and wide range of engineering jobs that are available. 

JSH Teaching of maths and physics, peer pressure and lack of good career information. We are one of the only EU countries to allow children to drop all maths and science after GCSE. One idea often reinforced by reported experiences of others on the career ladder is that it is difficult to combine family with a career in engineering. 

DM I think many women believe they cannot balance this type of career with a family, but more and more employers are open to part-time flexible working. I have worked part time for 10 years – it is sometimes hard to balance work and home life, but it is possible to be successful in both spheres. Some people perceive the industry as dirty, noisy and unpleasant, and it can be. However, mining and construction work sites and camp accommodations have improved significantly. Anyway, it’s nothing a hot shower can’t fix at the end of a shift. 

EF People do not realise that engineering can be a rewarding professional path. The opportunities are not made clear to them.

What can schools/colleges and industry do to encourage more women to consider these careers? 

FR I think that schools need to have a better understanding about what a career in engineering or materials involves so they can encourage students generally and not just increase the number of women, as there is an overall shortage and long-term retention is poor. I would like to see teachers (and school-based careers advisors) spending some of their INSET days at university science and engineering departments or visiting engineering companies, so they can be well informed to engage with their students about science and engineering careers. Industry could be more engaged in STEM activities focused on guiding students towards careers in engineering and materials, and hold events at their facilities not just in schools. Opportunities are open to all students, but I think that they need to be more actively marketed towards the female audience as often they lack the confidence to put themselves forward and may not have a group of friends to attend with as boys usually do. 

SB The best thing they can do is to introduce students to female engineers so they can learn about their careers and how they got to where they are. Many women members have indicated that they are keen to work in schools, which is really positive. The Schools’ Affiliate Scheme provides schools with information about teaching materials and encourages students, male and female, to think about a career in materials engineering. JSH Ensure inspiring teaching of maths and physics. Insist maths at least is carried on to school leaving age. Ensure inspiring information about what engineering is and what a career might entail – all at a very young age – we often lose girls from science and engineering courses by the time they take GCSEs. 

AS STEM subjects should be inspiring and having enthusiastic teachers always helps. The SEA scheme is a great example of how industry is already working with schools and colleges. Work experience schemes are also useful – that’s how I got the opportunity to work with glass fibre composites, which fuelled my interest in materials science. More difficult, particularly in the current economic environment, would be the re-introduction or wider availability of apprenticeships. There are so many more opportunities in different fields now, with the chance to travel, meet customers and colleagues, and work in other countries. There needs to be a greater awareness of what an engineer is and what they do. Restricting the use of the title engineer to those who have greater responsibility and knowledge than your local boiler installer, plumber or electrician, for example (as is the case in Germany), would go a long way in promoting engineering as a profession and dispelling an out-of-date perception. Formula One and great feats such as Felix Baumgartner’s recent jump capture people’s interest. I also think television programmes based around exciting scientific challenges could inspire the next generation of Brunels or Dysons – prizes could be funded by industry and Government. TV programmes such as Scrapheap Challenge and How It’s Made are also interesting, although not easy to replicate at home with a Lego or Meccano set. 

MF I think long-term initiatives such as STEM ambassadors, specialised careers advisers and up-to-date teachers are most effective. I recently joined MentorSET (a mentoring scheme for women in Science, Engineering and Technology) and was matched up with a female chief engineer in the oil and gas industry. On a day-to-day basis I do not have any contact with female mechanical engineers, so it is very refreshing to meet my mentor, and also as with all mentors, it is good to speak about your career with someone who is in a different company. 

JT Increased support and encouragement for potential future students and employees. How about financial incentives for female GCSE and A-Level students who show promise in STEM subjects, apprenticeships aimed specifically at female students, and mentoring programmes that link female students with female engineers? 

DM Engineering is a fascinating and fulfilling career. Raising the profile of engineering as a fun career where you can travel the world and do a variety of work is important. Inviting people from industry to talk to students and organising site visits/ field trips with industry is a great way to promote engineering. 

EF Encourage more females to study these subjects through work placements and internships.