Engineering is an area that’s historically been dominated by men. Sandra McNally is leading an inquiry into how to massively widen women’s participation in this vital area of the economy, and is asking for written submissions by May 21

In this ‘Year of Engineering’, the Skills Commission is running an inquiry into the pathways for women into engineering. Engineering contributes 26 per cent of the UK’s GDP, and developing skills in this area is a key element of the industrial strategy.

While gender imbalances are prevalent in engineering in many countries, the UK is one of the worst, according to statistics produced by the Women’s Engineering Society. Research from the Learning and Work Institute found that women are far less likely than men to apply for an apprenticeship in engineering, manufacturing and technology. The Centre for Vocational Education Research has shown that men who undertake an advanced apprenticeship have much higher earnings in the future than women – and much of this is attributable to the sector of specialisation.

Why are women so underrepresented in engineering and what might be done about it? These are the central questions I and my co-chairs of the Skills Commission inquiry, Lucy Allan MP and Preet Gill MP, are asking. Even the question is difficult, because engineering is a very broad area and can be studied within both FE and HE.

Part of the answer might lie in the narrowness of how people perceive engineering as an occupation, perhaps picturing hard hats and railway lines. Witnesses to our inquiry have been keen to stress that there is much more to engineering than that, but it seems to suffer from an image problem that needs to be turned around.

While gender imbalances are prevalent in engineering in many countries, the UK is one of the worst

This is not helped by the school curriculum, where reference to engineering is absent, nor by the quality of information, advice and guidance on offer. Positively, the Skills Commission has already called for a step change in information, advice and guidance at schools, and the Baker amendment to the Technical and Vocational Education Act has ensured that local FE providers can meet potential pupils to make pathways into further education more accessible. One message seems to be that if people knew what engineers actually do and the range of settings where many of them work, it would not be so much at odds with the hopes and expectations of young women.

On the other hand, gender stereotyping from an early age is a very pertinent issue for STEM in general and engineering in particular. One of the researchers giving evidence to the inquiry told us that many women in engineering have a family member who works in the sector and need to be resilient to jibes from others for choosing to study and work in this area. This societal problem is sometimes reinforced in advertising, the media and even children’s toys. On top of this, the workplace culture can sometimes be hostile to women: from very practical ways of overlooking the their needs (such as a lack of appropriate clothing and facilities) to “macho culture”. However, there are examples of firms at the other end of the spectrum – desirable places for anyone to work.

Our call for evidence is now being extended to May 21, looking for examples of good and bad practice at engineering firms. We want examples of initiatives that have been tried (in any area) to address the barriers to women’s decisions to study or work in engineering. We are seeking ideas on how policy at various levels might help to address problems. For example, can more be done to incentivise best practice ? Are there practical ways that larger employers can help small employers in their supply chain? At schools and colleges, how might information, advice and guidance or the curriculum be changed to accurately represent what engineering actually involves, in all its diversity? Is there something that those designing T-levels can do? More broadly, are there practical ways that the more deeply embedded stereotypes can be challenged and changed?

It’s difficult to see how the needs of the engineering sector can be met without doing more to attract the 50 per cent of the population, from whom the current supply is pitifully small.

The Skills Commission has extended its call for evidence deadline until May 21. We want to hear from the engineering sector and those in the FE and HE sectors training engineers of the future. If you have thoughts to share, please respond to our call for evidence. Written submissions can be made anonymously or contact Beth Wheaton at Policy Connect .

Sandra McNally is the director of LSE’s Centre for Vocational Education Research