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Viewpoint: Would you encourage women to be engineers?

Does it matter that the number of women going into science, engineering and technology has reached a plateau?

When I became an engineer 12 years ago, just 4% of chartered civil engineers were women.  I was surprised to discover recently that although the proportion of women going into engineering had been steadily rising, it’s reached a plateau.

The percentage of women studying civil engineering has not increased over the last 10 years, hovering somewhere around 15%. The profession now boasts 5% women members.

Last week at an event at the House of Lords, equalities minister Lynne Featherstone took the subject by the horns, and made the case that it’s in the interests of UK plc to attract the best and brightest into science and engineering. She articulated some of the things the Government is doing specifically to drive employment in the sector, and support female workers, such as protecting the science budget (£4bn a year), facilitating flexible parental leave, and making pay secrecy clauses unenforceable.

There are clearly broader issues to tackle in dealing with the engineering skills gap, particularly if we are going to achieve the aims set out in the Government’s National Infrastructure Plan. I believe that when we make civil engineering more attractive to women, we will make it more attractive to everyone.

“In order to compete on a global scale, we must value and use all our resources – including our people – better”

The policies Featherstone outlined are really practical steps in the right direction. I agree with her that the most persuasive argument is the bottom line; in order to compete on a global scale, we must value and use all our resources – including our people – better. While the Government has an important role to play in tackling these issues, we can’t expect it to do everything for us. Former ICE President Paul Jowitt said that ‘this issue is something the industry must seek to address’. How can we do that?

There clearly needs to be better support from employers – to attract and retain female engineers. The ICE’s 2010 salary survey highlights the yawning gender gap: with men “earning an average of 42% more across the board than females”. With a discrepancy like that, it’s perhaps not surprising that only 21% of women feel “very satisfied” with their role, compared to 31% of men.

I am encouraged to see that in some firms there has recently been an increase in senior level support for challenging the status quo. In Arup for example, our Inclusive Leadership programme encourages all senior staff to recognise that unconsciously everyone has biases, these naturally develop to help us make sense of the world. 

The programme then provides practical tools to reduce and eliminate them.

This top-down approach complements the more “bottom-up” initiatives such as the Arup ConnectWomen network, regular organisers of events like the one mentioned above. How many other initiatives are there out there? Ask yourself a question – would you encourage your daughter to go into engineering? If not, what would it take? Do you think we’re doing enough to attract and retain female engineers? I’d love to hear from you.

  • Isobel is a Senior Engineer with Arup and a councillor for the London Borough of Ealing. She is also a finalist in this year’s WISE Excellence Awards.

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