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Engendering Equality in Engineering

British engineering is facing a serious skills shortage. Yesterday, the thinktank IPPR published a report claiming that ‘an additional 87,000 graduate level engineers will be needed in the UK each year between now and 2020’ in order to meet growing demand, but that ‘the higher education system is only producing 46,000 engineering graduates annually’. Well as a starter for ten, that maths doesn’t look good.

26th September 2014    |     Peter Rolton: Chairman, Rolton Group

Things go from bad to worse, however, when you interrogate the statistics about the UK’s engineering workforce as they reveal that only 7 per cent of the total is made up of female professionals, and that figure remains worryingly stagnant over time. Less than a year ago, Vince Cable lamented the fact that the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe and it’s easy to see why he is so concerned; if almost half of the population isn’t engaging with the sector, we can’t possibly access the full potential of each generation that comes through, and the talent pool that we as employers can choose from is far smaller.

So why the no-show? A major contributing factor stems from choices made long before young women enter the workforce; careers advice often reinforces fairly narrow gender stereotypes, and girls can be put off by the perception of engineering as a ‘man’s job’. When they participate in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, females perform just as well if not better than their male peers, so it can’t simply be that boys are better suited to them; based on current trends, however, we won’t see an equal number of female and male A level students in these areas until 2058. We can’t afford to wait that long because, without qualifications in these subjects, the door to a career in the industry will remain closed and the skills shortage will worsen. Perceptions need to change from the ground up if we’re to encourage a more balanced gender ratio coming in to the profession.

Once in the job, however, the gender issues remain. The macho attitude that pervades the construction industry is unhelpful; it can’t be appealing to even the most qualified woman to go out on site and be subject to inappropriate comments and questions about her professional ability based on her gender. Moreover, who would be tempted by a career in the sector when they can’t see themselves sat at the top table? There are worryingly few female torchbearers at the senior level, and until it looks like an achievable aspiration female candidates won’t be falling over themselves to apply.

Emma Watson made an excellent speech on behalf of the UN earlier this week (somewhat overshadowed, sadly, by the nude photograph hoax that followed in response to her speaking out) about these issues, and equally, how they affect men too. This really rang true with me, because expecting men to exist within the confines of an archetypical notion of gender that became outmoded with the industrial revolution is just as limiting as expecting women to live in the kitchen because that was their historical role. As Watson rightly points out: ‘Both men and women should feel free to be strong… We should stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by who we are.’ I recommend watching her speech, it’s well worth 15 minutes of your time:

Research consistently shows that workplaces are more effective with a balance of genders at every level of the hierarchy, but it is acknowledged that breaking out of the status quo is hard. We currently operate in a male-dominated industry, so who’s responsibility is it to make a change? This is the core of Watson’s speech: until those who sit on senior boards make the changes necessary to bring about equality, it simply won’t happen. The majority of those sitting on boards are men, so it lies with them to make the forward-thinking and commercially-minded decision to include and encourage the participation of women.

Engineering is a broad church, and within it there lies real opportunity for bright individuals to make a difference to the world around them. We want the best candidates to rise up and shape the future of our nation, operating within a sector that discriminates on talent, not on arbitrary characteristics that bear no correlation to skill level. The slow rise we’re seeing in the number of female applicants is encouraging, but more work needs to be done; we all live on this planet, and we should all have an equal opportunity to make it a better place.

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