Here come the girls

Michelle Richmond is Director of Membership and Professional Development at The IET

The UK Business Secretary, Vince Cable, last week suggested that more women should go into engineering to help solve the skills shortage.  He highlighted the vital role that women represent in engineering and the need to shift the mindset and reputation the industry has about engineering being a ‘dirty hands’ business suitable only for men.

This need to repair, and even revamp, the profile of a career in engineering has never been more significant. Over 90 per cent of the UK’s engineering workforce is taken up by men. By raising the profile of a career in engineering among women, the Business Secretary highlighted this audience as an essential resource to bridge the engineering skills gap.

The role of women in sectors such as science, engineering and technology has always been a pertinent issue in the UK. The 2012 skills survey from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) highlighted a significant gender gap in engineering roles specifically, with only 6 per cent of roles in the UK held by women, a figure unchanged from 2011. In fact, the number of women in the engineering sector has almost remained unchanged since 2008.

Addressing the problem

The IET itself invests a great deal of time and resources into attracting more women into engineering and promoting STEM careers and subjects to address the current gender gap, but more support from industry and government is needed.

Awards such as the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year awards recognise the achievement of young women in engineering, as well as providing inspirational role models and ambassadors for the profession.  It is schemes like this that will help encourage adoption and provide an achievable career path for women within these fields.

The 2012 winner, Yewande Akinola was selected for her passion and commitment towards raising the profile of engineering among new audiences. A successful design engineer and sustainability advocate, Yewande hopes that winning this award will help demonstrate the varied career opportunities that engineering can lead to, particularly in new industries such as renewable energy, power, and design that are crucial to the UK’s own development. The work that ambassadors such as Yewande will undergo this year will hopefully begin a shift in the mindset of young people and girls particularly, that engineering is a purely a male profession.

The Bigger Picture

That being said, as vast as the gender chasm has become, we also need to reflect on the engineering skills and age gap in general, and the efforts that need to be made to bridge this. Figures have shown that over 90,000 of new engineers would be needed over the next four years to replace those engineers that are due to retire. Engineering continues to be an ageing industry and as the UK experiences significant growth in this expanding sector, failure to recruit a skilled workforce in this country to meet this demand, will mean this talent will be recruited from abroad.

What needs to be communicated is that job prospects in engineering continue to look strong, with companies continually seeking talented graduate engineers and scientists, as well as technicians and apprentices.  The IET has recently widened its current scholarships portfolio with the ‘Diamond Jubilee scholarships’ initiative that sees a further £2,000,000 plus investment to help aspiring engineers to achieve their ambitions. The initiative means that every student achieving three A grades at A-Level, or three A grades Advanced Highers or 5 A grade Highers, will be awarded with £1,000 for each year of their engineering degree.

This kind of support is just the starting point. While the challenge may be great, an emphasis on raising awareness, recognising talent and promoting key ambassadors in these fields will be vital in inspiring young people, in particular young girls, to pursue a career in these sectors for years to come. It is clear that there are already a number of great men and women in science, engineering and technology and by pulling together we can ensure that this number only continues to rise for generations to come.

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