Perspective - Women in engineering

Materials World magazine
27 Nov 2012
Dame Julia Stretton Higgins

Dame Julia Stretton Higgins, former Principal of the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College London, discusses the shortage of skilled female engineers in the UK and how we might redress the balance. 

We in this country are constantly hearing calls from employers for more and better-skilled engineers. At the same time, those of us concerned about diversity know that only 8.75% of employees in engineering are women, that degree courses in engineering struggle to attract more than 10–15% girls (although chemical and biomedical engineering courses attract more) and that only 50% of all-girls schools send any candidates forward for A-Level physics – with that number halved in mixed schools. It seems clear that there might be a connection between these observations. Not only are girls missing out on rewarding careers, but UK industry is missing out on potential skilled engineers. Worse follows. More women than men drop out of careers in STEM subjects in academia and STEM careers in industry, especially in the 15–20 year range. This corresponds, one might observe, to the childrearing age for many women. 

It is not that efforts are not being made to redress the problems. The Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institutions have all made efforts to attract young women into engineering, albeit with mixed or limited success. The Institute of Physics has been making heroic efforts to attract graduates into teaching physics – an important starting point given that pretty much all engineering training, whether academic or vocational, calls for the subject. The Athena Swan Awards, which kite-marks departments with gold, silver or bronze awards for their support for their women academics, are being won by more and more university STEM departments. And the Daphne Jackson Trust exists to help women return to work after a career break. 

Although these are all positive and helpful moves, they cannot address the elephant in the room – the cultural prejudice most of us have against science or engineering as a ‘proper’ career for women, and a view that child rearing is overwhelmingly women’s concern. A very telling piece of research recently appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, in the USA. Applications with supporting CV information were sent for comment to a range of mixed-gender academics in a wide variety of universities. The post applied for was for a laboratory manager, and the applicant was switched to be either female or male. Systematically the male applicant was judged better qualified, more likely to succeed, better worthy of mentoring and worth a higher salary – and this by both male and female academics. 

Engineers like to think of themselves as objective in their judgments. If we carry such cultural baggage, how much longer will it remain unacknowledged in the general community? Moreover, how can we in academia and industry help to redress the balance? First, by admitting that we are all probably closet discriminators. Then by going forward with the best communication programmes we can inform the community, especially teachers, that engineering is an exciting, rewarding and vital career choice for young people, especially young women. We need to enlist the support of the media. And then make sure we provide all the support necessary for young women who do enter such careers to succeed and progress.