Though some progress has been made in recent years, it remains the case that in the UK, only 12% of engineers are female.
Women tend not to choose a career in engineering and yet, when studying the appropriate subjects for admission on to an engineering degree course, girls typically outperform boys.
It seems that there remains something of a traditional, negative attitude towards women entering engineering as a career which appears to discourage many from considering it, but why is this the case?
Inevitably, the socially constructed reason that traditionally, women have taken on the role of child-rearing and homemaking while men have gone to work has an effect. However, nowadays, this is no more valid for engineering careers as it is for more traditionally ‘female’ careers. In fact, many construction companies offer day care for employees’ children and flexible working hours, redressing the balance for both male and female employees.
The engineering profession can often be portrayed stereotypically – men on construction sites, in hard hats, perusing dry charts – which doesn’t really market the potential for exciting and rewarding work. In addition, there can a perception, as there can be in other male-orientated careers, that women must work harder to be treated in the same way, or even manage the blatantly sexist behaviour of male colleagues.
Whether this is the case or not, it may be potentially off-putting for women when they know that their skills and qualifications can be utilised in what they consider to be more supportive fields.
Nevertheless, women do choose, and are recruited to, the profession – but often this only serves to highlight the challenges and difficulties of female staff retention. Research indicates that approximately 40% of women who hold engineering qualifications do not continue to work in engineering roles.
As engineers are consistently in high demand, highly qualified, and relatively well-paid, it appears to be a considerable waste of talent, time and resources that so many women still choose to pursue careers elsewhere.
But how much does it matter? Engineering, design, technology and construction is essential for the way we live, and all are areas requiring capable, qualified people to service them. Without attracting and retaining women engineers into the sector, the potential for an ever-diminishing recruitment supply is clear. And, without more women in engineering, the inspiration and mentoring available for future female engineers is both limited and limiting.
What’s more, diversity in all areas is key to a forward-thinking, open-minded, innovative workforce, without discrimination and with equality in a supportive culture.