How do we close the gender gap in engineering?

Posted by Derek Mason

1st October 2019

It is obvious to anyone who works in engineering or construction, that there is a major difference between the number of women working in the sector, and the number of men working there.

The figures are stark. Women make up 47% of the UK workforce and yet only 12% of people working in engineering occupations are female (figures from 2018).

Interestingly, substantially more women work in engineering roles outside the engineering sector (18.5%) whereas within the sector the figure drops to 9.7%. This may be due to the fact that the environment outside the sector itself is seen as being more welcoming to women.

But attitudes are changing, and it is interesting to watch the sector responding to the need to recruit more women. My daughter graduated as a Structural Engineer in June this year and has just joined a firm in Guildford as a structural engineer, so while I would like to do more to encourage women to join our ranks, I at least know that I have had a small impact on numbers.

Wates Group announced this summer that they intend to dramatically improve the gender balance in their workforce. They have set an ambitious target of having women account for 40% of their workforce by 2025.

This is part of their Diversity and Inclusion Plan, which is their blueprint for an inclusive business.

Chief Executive, David Allen, has said that the built environment sector needs to change to become more representative of society. He explained, “Our plan summarises our approach, our goals and our commitment to be a business where everyone is welcomed, included and connected.”

As well as increasing the number of women working at Wates, the group has committed to ensuring their workforce includes 20% black, Asian and minority ethnic people, 5% LGBTQ+ people and 3% people with a disability.

The Wates pledge is a good start, and with them employing almost 4,000 people, this is a significant commitment.

But one of the main problems we have in this sector is that we do not have enough people training to be engineers.

A 2014 report put the annual shortfall of STEM skills at 40,000 people. In 2017 the shortfall of the right engineering skills was thought to be between 25,500 and 60,000. And we need to at least double the number of UK-based university engineering students.

I know myself that each time I’ve expanded my team it has been challenging to recruit a good engineer. So while industry targets for women engineers are a positive step, we need to do more to attract young people to engineering as a career path.

The government has taken some action, and 2018 was declared the Year of Engineering. The goal was to educate and inspire 7 to 16-year-olds, with hundreds of events in collaboration with more than 1,400 partners.

But did this make a difference?

Head of Education at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Peter Finegold, thinks it’s too soon to tell, but there are encouraging signs. More than one million young people got involved, and research by the Engineering UK Brand Monitor found that the number of 7- to 11-year-olds who would consider a career in engineering increased by 36%, and the number of 11- to 16-year-olds who would do the same rose by 9%.

There have been other benefits of this push, with Finegold adding, “The Year of Engineering showed how having visible government backing for engineering made it easier for employers, STEM providers, educational and professional organisations to join forces and march under the same banner – something engineering desperately needs.”

The impact of this campaign on girls was high, with the percentage of girls aged 7-11 who would consider a career in engineering more than doubling to 53%.

It’s good to see this kind of collaboration and I hope that we will see more of it in the future, and that it will lead to many more engineering recruits in general, as well as more women joining the profession.

In the meantime, if you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.

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