Only 6% of the engineering workforce is female, and yet girls make up about half of physics students at GCSE level according to the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). The crucial drop-off point is at A-Level where fewer than 20% of girls continue to pursue physics. Why is this happening? And what are big companies doing to inspire young women?
In 2012, the gender imbalance was noticeable with only 400 female engineering apprentices compared to about 13,000 male apprentices. Targeted apprenticeship programmes in a diverse range of disciplines have been created to combat this – helping to break the stereotype. Companies such as Unilever, Cisco, and British Gas are paving the way by encouraging women into typically male-dominated roles.
Vicky Johnson, a British Gas service apprentice, told us about her experience of securing a place in Service and Repair Engineering. “I applied because I loved working with my hands,” she says. “From learning in the classroom to applying that knowledge in the workshops. I feel like I’m always learning something new. Being a female apprentice is great because people want to see more women going into engineering and similar trade jobs. It’s a brilliant and rewarding career choice. Lots of customers seem surprised to see me when I turn up on their door, but also glad to see a female engineer doing the work.”
British Gas is actively working to encourage more women to join its apprenticeship schemes. Other employers, such as Tony Thompson, a manager at social housing landlord Incommunities, have actively sought out female apprentices by visiting schools to encourage more girls to consider a career in the construction industry. Similarly, an Essex-based initiative – neatly dubbed ‘Girls Allowed’ – inspires girls to consider engineering apprenticeships, with short and long-term engineering training, work placements, and apprenticeships made available through colleges.
Farming is another area where, traditionally, the majority of apprentices are male. For Jennie Powell though, the Pathways to Agriculture apprenticeship at Coleg Powys college in mid-Wales helped crystallise her ambition to follow her father into the family farming business.
“The college makes sure we get a really broad variety of practical experience. We’ve done a lot of work on stock husbandry and I’ve had a go at catching the stock for medical treatment. I’ve even worked in the fields, welding and maintaining machinery.” As to the gender imbalance, she says, “My class has a ratio of about two boys to one girl, but there’s no obvious divide between us. I’m really comfortable with everyone in the group – we’re like a family.”
Attitudes are slowly changing, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Katie Griffiths from the British Science Association (BSA) says: “This is becoming incredibly important for our economy. Currently the ‘leaky pipeline’ means that the higher up the [engineering] career ladder you look, the fewer women there are. Programmes such as the BSA’s CREST Awards for 11-to-19-year-olds prove that a 50:50 gender balance is possible...yet we’re not harnessing this enthusiasm and interest; we’re letting it dwindle away.”
The day will come, in the not too distant future, when the sight of a female engineer on the doorstep won’t seem unusual in any way. Until then, a growing band of skilled women will keep blazing a trail for greater diversity in the engineering workforce.
Did you know?
According to Engineering UK 2014, the number of women in engineering in 2011/2012 has increased by 57.7%.
The UK will need 1.82 million science and engineering professionals by 2020. Visit Engineering UK 2015 to download the full report on this.
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