Britain needs more women engineers

If Britain does not get more women engineers, parts of that industry will move overseas to where it can recruit the workers it needs.

If Britain does not get more women engineers, parts of that industry will move overseas to where it can recruit the workers it needs

Industry estimates suggest Britain will need 87,000 graduate-level engineers every year between now and 2020, but only 46,000 young people are likely to be awarded degrees in engineering annually.

There is also likely to be a gap between the number of young people acquiring vocational engineering qualifications and employers’ demand for technicians.

These gaps would be much smaller if more young women opted for careers in engineering. The UK has the lowest proportion of female engineering professionals in Europe.

IPPR has just published a report, written my former colleagues Amna Silim and Cait Crosse, investigating why so few young women choose to pursue a career in engineering. They found that the crucial decision is taken at the age of 16. Up to that point, girls are as likely as boys to opt to study the science subjects, including physics, that are likely to be needed as a basis for further studies leading towards a career in engineering.

Furthermore, on average they get better results at GCSE in mathematics and physics than boys.

But, when deciding what subjects to study at A level, or what vocational training to pursue, far more young women than men make choices that rule out a possible career in engineering. Thus, only two in five A level mathematics students are female, and just one in five A level physics student.

There is a further leakage of women from the engineering pipeline at the age of 18 – only one in six engineering and technology students are female – but the big loss is at the age of 16.

It might seem, therefore, that a potential solution would be to improve careers advice for young women at the age of 16, to point out, for example, that engineering is a well-paid career and that the high demand for engineers and technicians also makes it one with plentiful opportunities.

However, our report also shows that choices made at the age of 16 are based on attitudes and perceptions about engineering that have been formed over many years. Engineering is seen as a career for ‘brainy boys’. Intervention at the age of 16 is likely to be too late.

The key to getting more women into engineering is to make it an attractive option for girls from an early age. But at present, teachers, careers guidance, work experience and families are not doing enough to counter the view that engineering is for men, not women, and in some cases they are guilty of perpetuating it.

Given that the attitudes of the current batch of 16 year olds have already been formed, it is almost certainly too late to do anything about the gap between the supply of and demand for engineers and technicians in the UK between now and 2020. But steps can be taken to ensure Britain produces more women engineers and technicians after 2020.

Teachers have a crucial role to play, but too often they enforce existing stereotypes rather than challenging them. The government should require equality and inclusion training to be a feature of teacher training courses and of teachers’ continuing professional development.

The quality of careers advice in Britain is generally poor. As part of improving it, careers advice should be integrated into the curriculum from primary school. The advice should be always be gender-neutral and should emphasise the range of opportunities available in engineering.

Schools should also ensure that their pupils have multiple contacts with employers, including those in the engineering industry, so that they develop a better understanding of career pathways. These contacts could include local employers coming into schools to talk about their industry, former pupils returning to talk about their jobs and increased work experience opportunities across a range of industries.

A reasonable expectation should be that as many girls as boys have some experience of engineering industries before they reach the age of 16.

The attitudes that mean young women at the age of 16 predominantly see engineering as a ‘man’s occupation’ will not be changed overnight. But they need to change if Britain is to produce the number of engineers and technicians that industry is likely to require in the next few decades.

If Britain does not get more women engineers, parts of that industry will move overseas to where it can recruit the workers it needs. Given the rapidity of the decline in manufacturing’s share of the economy over the last 35 years – and the persistent trade deficits that have accompanied it – this is not something we can afford.

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

6 Responses to “Britain needs more women engineers”

  1. TheProle

    >If Britain does not get more women engineers, parts of that industry will move overseas to where it can recruit the workers it needs.

    Sorry, but this argument is fallacious. If you deleted the word “woman” from that sentence, then it sounds plausible enough – not enough workers is likely to lead to jobs moving elsewhere (although it will do nice things for the pay of those whose jobs aren’t offshorable). However, there is no direct link made anywhere in the piece to why (for instance) more men couldn’t train instead (this being what will probably actually happen in practice), or (only slightly less plausibly) robots take over (Autocad is coming to steal your job!).

    There are also a good couple of counter arguments that give good reasons why there aren’t more women in engineering.

    1) Engineering at the sharp end is ****** brutal. I’m an engineering type whose (specialist) job involves dealing with very heavy bits of metal in very hot environments, and often using very heavy tools requiring lots of physical strength and stamina – my 16 old male apprentice couldn’t get the mag drill I was using the other day off the floor, never mind get up a ladder with it and stick it on the job.

    Men and women are physically different – men tend to be physically bigger and stronger. This doesn’t mean that their are no women who can swing 16lb sledge hammers (something else nasty I have to do, and not for just one or two hits either), but the law of averages means that they are much less likely to be of (or wish to become) the sort of physical build required for the task.

    2) A lot of engineering is about spatial perception/3d awareness – another area where men tend on average to do better than women (this isn’t to do down women in any way – they just tend to be better at different things – emotional intelligence for instance). Again, some women are brilliant at it – but – the laws of averages means in general they are less good (for the same reasons not all blokes are suited to be engineers – some blokes are so useless they end up doing totally pointless tasks, e.g. leading the Labour Party).

    One finial thoughts – why does it matter? I’ve nothing against women becoming engineers (providing they are good at it, rather than having just been pushed into place in some exercise in tokenism or PR), and I’ve quite happily worked with one or two in previous jobs – but if women don’t particularly like engineering as a career – is that really a problem, and if so, for who?

  2. Peter Martin

    There’s always a relative shortage of everything under capitalism. If there’s a glut of apples, for example, prices will fall. If they are scarce they will rise.

    So are engineering salaries very high or too high? I don’t think so. In which case there isn’t any particular shortage. I suspect many of the engineering companies may be in the position of a shopper who was only prepared to pay 50p per kilo for their apples. At that price there will be a shortage.

  3. MoreLeftThanYou

    Ask the Duke of Kent. He is chair of the Engineering Council which is the body responsible for promotion of engineering among the young. He has been the Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England since he was first elected in 1967 so he should be easy to find.

    You think the Engineering Council is modern and forward looking? really?

  4. Guest

    Trained engineers (as opposed to technicians) are one of the classic jobs which *can’t* be fully automated.

  5. AlanGiles

    We need more engineers full stop. The sex of those engineers is immaterial. Ingratiating codswallop like this article really annoys me
    The left really needs to get over this obsession of thinking that women are the answer to every problem.
    Look at women politicians – Hazel Blears “rocking the boat”, Margaret Moran, convicted criminal who was to “ill” to take her punishment, etc etc – just as many dishonest third rate women as there are men.
    In any job the best candidate should get the job regardless of sex

  6. Davide David

    Women engineers? Who let them out of the kitchen?

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