Mind the Gap – does engineering have female trouble?

Sir James Dyson, of the eponymous vacuum empire and all-round British engineering national treasure, recently wrote an opinion piece for The Telegraph about the engineering skills crisis the UK is currently facing. In it he deals specifically with the fact that the country’s young women are still not entering the science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) industries to the same degree young men are.

Summer is the time that both the A-Level and GCSE results are released; whereby thousands of 16 to 18 year olds find out in which direction their future is headed. It’s an exciting and tense time where careers and lives are forged in the furnace of our current education system and much ink has been spilled on the fact that young women, when choosing their post-secondary school education, are less inclined toward STEM subjects.

But why is this? If we are seeing a dramatic shortage in engineers, putting our economy, and our ability to create, in jeopardy then why is such a large portion of our workforce not motivated to join the weird and wonderful world of engineering?

In Dyson’s article he cites recent comments made by University of Glasgow psychology reader Dr Gijsbert Stoet. Stoet believes that the push toward generating more female engineers, physicists and computer scientists is a futile pursuit due to insurmountable, ‘innate differences’ between the genders. He contends that women are natural carers and are drawn to careers in the arts, while boys are better suited to the sciences and mathematics.

Isn’t Stoet just reinforcing unhelpful gender stereotypes? If we keep saying that women are ‘naturally’ less interested in scientific subjects and subsequent careers, then surely this is destined to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why would we choose to ignore this untapped wealth of potential?

There have been a number of studies conducted, including the Through Both Eyes report by grassroots organisation Science Grrl in 2013, that suggest that there is a long-standing cultural perception that the world of science and engineering is the domain of men and there are simply no places for women. This extends to attitudes in the home, at school and from wider society in general.

The report cites the long held and factually inaccurate idea that women’s brains are somehow unable to process factual, scientific information in the same way as men factors as a particularly damaging stereotype. There is also some concern that accurate, gender-aware but gender-neutral career guidance is not widely available on the vocational pathways down which STEM subjects can lead.

It is clear from recent reports that British engineering is under threat and the country is at risk of losing a generation of creative, technical and innovative minds. It would seem that deeply embedded societal messages about the ‘traditional’ roles that women are expected to fulfil is seriously damaging the attempt to engage intelligent young women in education to reach their full potential in the STEM industries.

If the reported figures, that the percentage of female A-Level physics students has remained a consistently low 20% for the last 20 years, then we are doing a huge disservice to young women, and the great tradition of British engineering, by allowing culturally engrained stereotypes to keep women distanced from careers in science, engineering and technology. It is clear that if we want to win the battle against outmoded thinking, quell our fear about the growing skills shortage and boost our economy then we must start to empower young women and provide them with a real choice, before it’s too late.

Are you a woman in engineering? Have you faced any blocks, culturally or institutionally, to your career in your chosen industry? We’d love to hear your opinion in the comments below!

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1 Comment

  1. I agree that the gender disparity in engineering is definitely a problem. I’m a female engineer, and I have done a lot of outreach programs to introduce young people to engineering. One thing I’ve noticed is that even when the kids are young enough that adults are deciding what classes they will take, there are way more boys than girls in coed engineering outreach classes (maybe one girl for every fifteen boys). To me this implies that many parents, perhaps unintentionally, are reinforcing gender stereotypes by choosing to expose their children (or not) to certain subject matters. That leaves the girls who do show up feeling out of place.

    Since the statistics of women in engineering remain low, a lot of women feel out of place and leave even after pursuing a degree in STEM. When I worked as a engineering contractor in a field that was virtually all men, I found that my gender often made simple business relationships a little more complicated.

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