Being positive

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:
The problem is schools, many of whom still believe that only boys do engineering. There was a story ...

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I first joined the engineering press in 1995 – almost exactly 24 years ago at the time of going to press, in fact. Over what is nearly quarter of a century, a near constant theme has been the drive to increase the numbers of women in engineering.

Those numbers back in 1995 were pretty shocking, with female representation in the profession in single figure percentages. So, what has changed since then? The somewhat depressing answer is ‘not as much as might have been hoped’. The percentage of women in UK engineering, while higher, is still estimated at between 9 and 11% – lower than anywhere else in Europe.

And yet one thing that has changed is the degree of attention given to this issue. Back in 1995, there were one or two voices highlighting this issue whereas now barely a day goes by without my inbox informing me of another initiative to increase female representation in the profession.

So, why has this message (which has certainly been pushed hard for at least 10 years) not been more successful? The problem does not appear to be in the workplace itself, where female engineers report very high levels of job satisfaction. The problem would seem to start much earlier than that, often at school, in fact.

On the surface, this seems strange, since strenuous efforts have been made to spread the gospel of engineering in schools. However, is it possible that the message that is being given to girls and young women could be the problem? Could it be that constantly repeating to them that women are under-represented in the profession – rather than spurring them on to join it –is actually dissuading them? After all, if you emphasise a negative message about a profession, is that likely to encourage people to join it?

Clearly the gender imbalance in engineering must be addressed. However, we must be careful that the story we tell about it is a positive one.

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The problem is schools, many of whom still believe that only boys do engineering. There was a story in the press recently where prospective new entrants from primary school were segregated and given a different tour (cooking for the girls) based on sex. I've also had a close friend whose daughter was excluded from an industry visit because 'girls don't do that'.
Meanwhile, I'm working in an environment where there's a substantial number of women who are respected for their engineering talents. The numbers have increased over the 33 years I've been here, but even so, it was always like this here. At least one female colleague has recently retired having completed a glittering career in engineering.

The government simply MUST stop schools from segregating the sexes when it comes to career prospects. Maybe this should be part of the OFSTED inspection for secondary schools?

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