FE must play its part in tackling engineering’s costly image problem

Engineering is so much more than our education system routinely promotes. Fixing that could be key for girls and women

Engineering is so much more than our education system routinely promotes. Fixing that could be key for girls and women

12 Dec 2023, 5:00

As I had the chance to tell Robert Halfon and Keighley and Ilkley MP, Robbie Moore at an event at Keighley College recently, outdated stereotypes and a lack of visible role models are preventing women from entering the engineering sector. I know this from my own experience as a woman working in the industry, which is still far too often seen as a ‘male’ career choice.

That should concern everyone, because this exciting, innovative and ever-evolving sector is crying out for talented people – whatever their gender. Yet a 2022 report found that only 16.5 per cent of engineers in the UK were female – better than the 10.5 per cent level of 2010, but slow progress indeed.

Keighley College is home to an industrial centre of excellence for advanced manufacturing and engineering. I studied there, and I know the valuable work it and other further education providers like it around the country are doing to attract young people into the sector. But nationally we have a real problem with encouraging girls and women to consider engineering as a viable career choice.

More than machining

Our education system exacerbates this by often only offering very limited routes in, mostly focusing on areas like tooling or machining. But engineering in the 21st Century is so much more. It spans everything from designing cars, aeroplanes and railway networks to clothing, telecommunications, food science and all kinds of consumer goods.

We need to do much better to showcase the wealth of opportunities on offer. The impression that engineering is all about hands-on work or structural design is long outmoded and really unhelpful.

Woman in the mirror

Another vitally needed change is to get more role models in the public eye to act as ambassadors and inspire our young women. Right now, there are very few well-known female engineers, which presents a huge barrier – as Nobel laureate Professor Frances Arnold recently highlighted.

Speaking to the press, Arnold, an American chemical engineer and the only woman so far to have won the Millennium Technology Prize stressed the importance of making the sector more diverse in terms of plugging skills gaps and boosting innovation.

To this end, the government needs to lead a national outreach drive where successful female engineers visit educational and other settings to talk to young people about their career options. That would be a really practical way of demonstrating that this profession has no intrinsic dependency on any one gender: a powerful message for young minds to hear. This should also be a key aspect of how apprenticeships are promoted.

 Widening the view

It goes without saying that engineers need to have strong STEM skills, which in itself should not be a barrier to women. This summer’s GCSE and A level results showed that, while the trend for more boys studying STEM subjects is continuing, girls perform better in them.

What is less appreciated is that a whole range of ‘softer’ skills, particularly linked to communication, are vital to the industry too. Engineering projects are, after all, all about teamwork – whether they involve huge river bridges or the latest hair dryer.

I have been involved in engineering for just over five years. My current role involves everything from designing products for manufacturing and leading prototype builds to reviewing specifications and leading the change management system. It is a challenging, dynamic and exciting position that I relish.

More than machines

But it’s important for me to always remember the reason I got involved in this industry in the first place: wonder. It all started while watching Robot Wars, and to this day I still aspire to create an all-conquering fighting robot!

Robots are actually a perfect symbol for engineering. They currently play a key role in all kinds of areas including construction, hospital equipment and manufacturing. Their technical wizardry is underpinned by mechanics, material composition and electrical communication systems, which all have professional roles within engineering. The wonder they inspire, meanwhile, is based as much on aesthetics and artistry as it is on the underlying tech, which demonstrates the power of good design.

Their potential is limitless. And, of course, they have no gender.

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