Why are there so few women in engineering?


Data shows that with only 6% of the engineering workforce being female, a career in engineering continues to be unattractive to women. Worryingly, the predicted short-fall in the number of professional engineers suggests that it is in fact unattractive to everyone regardless of gender. Why is this and what can we do about it?

Warley Design writes:

This recent article suggests that only 6% of the engineering workforce are female.

My personal experience tells me that the numbers in our particular corner of engineering (mechanical) are even lower than this.  If I think back over my career I can probably count female co-workers on my two hands.  It's quite shocking really.

In fact, let’s put the big issue of gender imbalance to one side for a moment.  Apparently, there is widespread acceptance that there is a massive short fall of engineers regardless of gender, so the problem we appear to have is not just limited to females.  With a short-fall in Professional Engineers predicted to reach 36,800 by 2050 it seems that Engineering is just not attractive at all.

Is it a question of image?

Engineering is a diverse and exciting industry. As far as I’m concerned, it’s at the “cutting edge” of everything. Engineering and technology development go hand in hand. If there’s a technical boundary being pushed, it’s an engineer of one sort or anther pushing it.

As most reading this will know, engineering is not all about Mecano, engines and steel toe caps, it’s all about problem solving, creativity, sciences, analysis and the like. Despite this, a vocation in engineering seems to struggle with either a fuddy-duddy, pipe-and-slippers image, or white-van-man racing along the motorway to his next air-con installation. Although I thoroughly enjoy watching programmes about our rich engineering heritage featuring the likes of Brunel, Whittle and Barnes Wallace we also need to send the message that modern Engineering has many facets.

We like to talk these days of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) but in truth it is the Science & Technology part that is really making massive leaps forwards (or may I say “trending”?)  There are some great publications and shows out there (such as “How it Works”, “Mythbusters” and “How it’s Made”) that do a great job in showcasing Science & Technology and bringing it to the attention of our younger people.  Come to think of it, my household has a monthly subscription to “How it Works” magazine and I often carry a copy with me on the off-chance that I have a few minutes to dip into it wherever I go!  It makes brilliant light-reading.

I fear the problem is with the “Engineering” tag itself: it still has connotations of men with side-burns wearing brown over-alls.  The trouble is, to counteract the positive steps forward we still manage to hold-back changes to perception thorough our misuse of the “Engineer” title.  I don’t think I’m at all snobbish, I just think that the continual widespread use of titles like “Automotive Engineers” (vehicle mechanic) , “Precision Engineers (metal machinist) and “Mechanical & Electrical Engineers” (building services fitter) are preventing us from reforming the image.  This, in turn is affecting the appeal of the “Engineering” industry.

Is it a question of awareness?

I have a daughter and a son.  Both have a keen interest in Mathematics and sciences.  I will be very interested to engage with their schools when it comes to subject selection and to careers advice and am intrigued by what advice they may be offered.  Time will tell.

Is it time to let the term “Engineer” go?

So, Engineering has always been about Science and Technology but Science and Technology is changing at an ever-increasing pace.  When greats like Brunel and Whittle applied their trade they were working at the leading edge of contemporary Science and Technology.  Our frame of reference for Science & Technology continually changes but we still remember the great Engineers for the Engineering that they did (and rightly so).  Perhaps the problem is that we cannot change the connotations of “Engineering” overnight and because of the strong legacy that the term has it will always have one foot in the past.

It seems that despite trying to elevate the perception of Engineering and hope that it becomes equally attractive to young females as it does to young males (which has clearly not worked), maybe we should emphasise “Science & Technology” more.  Just get hold of a copy of “How it Works” magazine (or similar) and see how cool Science and Technology is!  We need to capture young people’s interest in this very exciting pursuit and perhaps if we succeed the gender imbalance will start to correct itself naturally…


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