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Women 'lost to engineering' by A-level choices

Too many female students are lost to engineering at the age of 16, when A-level and vocational subject choices cut off this career path, according to a new report.

The study by think tank IPPR highlights the lack of young female students in A-level STEM subjects, which means too few women have the right pre-requisites to consider an engineering or science degree.

Earlier this month, University College London told NCE how it had boosted the gender balance on its market-leading civil engineering programmes by dropping the strict A-level requirements that are required by its rivals, typically subjects such as mathematics and physics.

The IPPR report found:

  • In 2013 only one in five physics A-level entries were female
  • In 2013 only two in five mathematics A-level students were female
  • In 2013, just over 72,000 girls achieved grades A*-C in GCSE physics but only around 10 per cent of these girls go on to pursue physics at A-level
  • In 2011, close to half of all co-ed secondary state schools with sixth forms had no female students studying A-level physics
  • In 2011/2012 only 13 per cent of applicants to engineering degrees were female
  • In 2012/13 one in six (17%) engineering and technology students were female at an undergraduate level.

The study revealed that women make up 42% of UK workforce but only 7% of professional engineering workforce. It noted that the UK needs 87,000 graduate level engineers each year between now and 2020, but the higher education system is only producing 46,000. This gap could be closed if more young women opted for careers in engineering, it said.

The report also shows that the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineering professionals in Europe.

The IPPR expressed concern over the transition from education into employment, where women are less likely than men to enter engineering and technology occupations.

Dalia Ben-Galim, IPPR Associate Director, said: “To better understand the significant shortage of women in engineering, it is important to map out where women, sometimes unknowingly, opt out of engineering career pathways. A large part of the problem is that at the age of 16, many girls remove themselves, which suggests the narrowing of the engineering talent pool starts well before people choose a career.

“Misconceptions about engineering continue to influence who pursues a career in this field. Engineering is still considered by many as a ‘man’s job’, and is associated with a workplace culture that may put off prospective female workers. These attitudes pose real challenges when attempting to correct the gender imbalances in the sector. To help overcome these barriers in attracting greater female talent to engineering government, schools and business all have a role to play in influencing career choices, and aspirations – particularly at the critical point where school subject choices are made.

“The discrepancy between the number of engineers the UK’s higher education system produces, and how many we need annually shows the UK has a long way to go to fill this potential skills gap. The most effective way to begin to address this gap is to tackle the low uptake of engineering degrees by women, and, further down the line, the continuation into long-term engineering careers.”

The report recommends:

•       The government should invest in equality and inclusion training for teachers taken as part of their teacher training course and should also be offered as part of continuing professional development

•       Increased contact with role models and connecting students with mentors to addressing female students’ perceptions that STEM is not ‘for them’.

•       Implementing better careers education and guidance from an early age: careers advice should be integrated into the curriculum from primary school and learning made more relevant to the realities of STEM industries.

•       The government and schools should encourage greater engagement between employers and students with links stronger links between schools and industry to improve understandings of career pathways.

•       An organisation such as STEMnet should be given funding to act as a hub in order to coordinate fragmented provision of interventions, map provision and organise conferences and networking events to allow practitioners, role models and ambassadors to share good practice.

Readers' comments (1)

  • I lectured in Civil Engineering at Middlesex University for 10 years finishing about 20 years ago.

    This article seems wrong for several reasons:
    1) We had quite a high proportion of women students then.
    2) We had a foundation year available to help women (and men) with the wrong A levels to study engineering.
    3) I question the need for mathematics beyond simultaneous equations and trigonometry in engineering. I say this in spite of writing programs for road geometry and the numerical modelling of pipelines and networks including water hammer.

    Engineering discipline creates good numeracy and we had students headhunted by the accounting profession.

    We also ran a Construction Engineering and Management Course and our students did well in the Management side of that course in spite of having lower A level requirements than the Civil Engineering course and far lower than the Business Management Course.


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