Women in Science, Engineering & Technology

Scientists, technologists and engineers shape the way we all live and function as a society. Everything that we utilise in our day-to-day lives including means of transport, communication and power are all forms of engineering. It is easy to take for granted the wealth of knowledge and brilliant innovations that have now become necessities in modern life. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions exist concurrently and are each as essential as the next. It is important to recognise all professional grades as they each play a role in keeping industry operational.

 

The Institution of Engineering and Technology skill's shortage survey unsurprisingly revealed that the current proportion of women in engineering is only 7% and in technology the figure stands at just 5%[1]. In some engineering sectors the fraction of female professionals can actually be less one percent and so it seems that more needs to be done to ensure that females are adequately represented across all technical fields.

 

Why do we need women in engineering?

In general men and women think differently. Regardless of whether this is genetic or cultural, women bring something different to the table. This alternative perspective on problem solving is crucial to finding the best possible solution. Furthermore as women make up almost 51% of the population in the UK it is imperative that new engineering innovations capture this majority market. A diverse engineering population is likely to encourage creativity and ingenuity and therefore will be the most successful.

 

In some instances clients may prefer to deal with female engineers or technicians as opposed to their male equivalent. The National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting (NICEIC) recently revealed that 47%[2] of women felt intimidated when dealing with a male electrician. Moreover 29%[3] of UK adults say they would prefer to hire a female tradesperson.

 

Personally I believe that all women should be given the opportunity to discover science and engineering for themselves. However, this does not mean forcing women into STEM careers to improve the gender balance. In reality we may never achieve an equal gender ratio as some professions will inherently attract more of one sex than the other. For example women do not usually possess the same physical strength as men which may dissuade them from entering into construction trades and other manual engineering jobs. This is not a cause for concern and so long as we can make STEM accessible to anyone who is interested we should naturally reach a point where we no longer need to encourage girls into science and engineering.

 

Inspiration will often begin at home or in school. I was incredibly fortunate to have two major role models from a young age; my father and secondary school electronics teacher, Mr Keith Allen. For as long as I can remember I have been immersed in the world of science and technology which ultimately moulded my career path. Nikki Giant, managing director of the social enterprise Full Circle Training Solutions thinks that "well-meaning adults still push girls and young women towards stereotypical careers". So if we are to encourage more young people into our profession we need to remove the stigma surrounding engineering and engage more with teachers and parents.

 

We also need to address the condescending attitude towards vocational qualifications and career paths. The City and Guilds survey titled New Directions found that "young people on general qualifications routes and their parents questioned the value of vocational qualifications in enabling access to university and higher skilled jobs"[4]. Having studied both a-levels and level 3 vocational qualifications I find it frustrating that this divide exists and that universities do not always recognise the qualifications as valuable or academically challenging. This view of the education system is erroneous given that 58% employers feel that engineering graduates do not have the necessary practical skills to go directly into employment[1]. The report also indicated that employers prefer to hire engineering or technical apprentices as opposed to graduates.

 

The current vision of engineering and the education system is partly responsible for deterring girls, and young people in general, from pursuing what could potentially be a prosperous and exciting career. I feel that we should be teaching engineering-based subjects in schools from a relatively early age. This way young people have the opportunity to develop an interest early on and are able to make more informed decisions on careers and further study. School leaving age is often too late to start  advertising engineering and by then the stereotypical image has usually set in.

 

Women already in the industry are challenging the stereotype. Ruth Amos is a young woman who established a company to market her own engineering creation when she was just sixteen[5]. Ruth is a fantastic role model for aspiring engineers and entrepreneurs. More female science and engineering teachers could also improve the image of STEM subjects and make them more accessible to girls and young women.

 

Over many yearsI have been exposed to the wonderful and inspiring world of science and engineering. I believe that we need to educate the next generation in what it is to be an engineer and illustrate to them the abundance of opportunities available.

 

Jessica Leigh Jones

 

 

References:

[1] IET Skills Shortage Survey

www.theiet.org/factfiles/education/skills2013

[2] NICEIC encourage more women to train as electricians

http://www.traininginelectrical.co.uk/blog/niceic-encourage-more-women-to-train-as-electricians

[3] 14 Million* Householders Would Prefer To Hire Female Plumbers, Electricians And Builders

http://www.freshbusinessthinking.com/business_advice.php?AID=1539#.UdWPJ23c-UQ

[4] New directions: Young people’s and parents’ views of vocational education and careers guidance

http://www.skillsdevelopment.org/PDF/New%20Directions.pdf

[5] StairSteady

http://www.stairsteady.net/steady.html

 
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© Jessica Leigh Jones