No Skilled Girls?

Action now will avoid future regret says Estelle Rowe, Director of Diversity programmes for EDT (the Engineering Development Trust)

We seem to have been talking about the low numbers of women in UK engineering for decades without having seen any significant changes in the numbers. The UK's single digit proportion of engineers (7% of engineering professionals and even worse for apprentices) ranks us as the worst in Europe where figures of 18% (Spain), 20% (Italy) and 26% (Sweden) put us to shame. Look further afield and you will see 19% in the US and a whopping 40% in China.

To be blunt, the time for talking is over because our failure to attract women into engineering is now significantly affecting the UK's ability to compete in our core industries. The lack of women in the engineering workforce is the single biggest reason why engineering companies in the UK can't find sufficient skilled people to fill vacancies to fuel growth and, once the ageing UK engineering workforce start retiring in seriously large numbers, there is a severe danger that there will not even be sufficient engineers in the pipeline to keep existing jobs filled.

The best research into why girls don't see themselves in engineering careers suggests that it is cultural factors that apply. If the girls don't have an engineer in their family or among close family friends, then they and their family will have no clear idea what engineering involves or what a career in engineering can achieve. This ignorance and associated false stereotypes are self-reinforcing and girls assume a "that's not for me" attitude without even knowing what it is they are rejecting. What we need is a change in culture and that can only be achieved by practically engaging girls, and ideally their families, with engineering achievement and challenges and exposing the incorrect "That's not for me" assumptions they are making.

National Women in Engineering Day (NWED) on the 23rd June is part of the wake-up call for UK engineering employers. It gives them an opportunity to start challenging the assumptions of girls and their families. Up and down the country engineering employers are holding events on NWED to challenge the stereotypes; visit the NWED website at to see what is going on and, if you have time, to get involved. Organisations like my own, EDT, and Engineering UK's "Tomorrow's Engineers" have programmes throughout the year which are proven to inspire young people, including girls, into considering engineering careers, indeed many are specifically designed for girls. We facilitate these programmes up and down the country but I am sorry to report that we aren't able to run nearly as many as we would like, not because there is a lack of interest from schools, but because there is a lack of interest from engineering employers.

There is a tendency for engineering employers to see inspiring children into engineering as someone else's job. I believe they are wrong; years of experience suggests that the most effective way of changing the mindset of young people towards engineering is for them to meet engineers and see their working environment . The culture among companies that sees engaging with schools as an optional 'CSR' activity needs to be seriously reviewed.

Overwhelmingly it is the medium and small engineering employers, which make up the majority of the industry, who need to reconsider their position. There are outstanding exceptions of course but in general it is these employers who are not undertaking the work in schools which is crucial for future talent streams. The message needs to get through that the only way to get girls, and indeed any young person, to start to think that engineering is 'for them' is to take them out to see real engineering and to meet real engineers. If it fails to happen, in ten years' time when small and medium sized engineering companies are losing business overseas because they can't find adequately skilled engineers in the UK, they may well regret having been inactive.

To take up the challenge visit the EDT website -