New research shows that by the age of seven girls have an unconscious bias against engineering and by age 14 they may have fully switched off from it as a career option.
In response Network Rail has pledged to ramp up its schools programme in a bid to stop the switch-off.
The research was undertaken InnovationBubble for Network Rail. Focus groups with schoolgirls were held across the country. It found different age groups had different reasons for rejecting engineering, but were also enthused for different reasons. The research found that before secondary school girls were most open to a career in engineering, responding well to role models and the social value of engineering.
Network Rail says it will now give thousands of girls careers advice about working on the railways and look to find and appoint more female role models. It will roll-out a work experience scheme this September and will run a series of open evenings at training centres.
Network Rail chief engineer Jane Simpson said: “If my school careers adviser had her way, I would have become a nursery nurse or teacher but I wasn’t willing to accept being pigeon-holed like that.
“Role models are crucial to show girls and women what’s possible and where their potential can take them. I was lucky to have a female role model who saw my potential and helped me realise it. Some quite senior men were astonished that I could talk confidently about complex engineering problems, but they soon came to see me for what I could do, not my gender. As the most senior engineer in one of Britain’s biggest engineering companies I know I can help girls along a similar path and be part of something special.”
The research found:
- Girls aged 7 to 9 thought engineering was dirty and messy but liked the social purpose of engineering.
- Girls aged 10 to 12 worried engineering was dangerous and that they weren’t strong enough but liked to see role models in engineering.
- Girls aged 13 to 15 thought it was unglamorous and unsocial but liked the opportunity to stand out with a different career choice.
The research also suggested ways to attract girls into engineering:
- Promote its social value – help girls see that engineering can help improve and even save lives.
- Female role models are critical.
- Explain engineering from an early stage – at school and home talk about how things are designed and built.
- Gaming, Minecraft in particular, can take a school subject and put it into the girls’ social lives.
- Key influencers in girls’ career choices – mainly parents and teachers – shouldn’t bemoan the lack of female engineers, but instead celebrate those that have chosen it as a profession.
Source: Network Rail / InnovationBubble
InnovationBubble psychologist Dr Simon Moore said: “The research pinpoints a critical time period for girls’ receptiveness to engineering as a career. At 11 the girls’ interests seemed to shift from being purely interested in jobs food, art or the media - to those that were more technical such as law, medical, science. The worrying result was that if the girls had not been informed by the age of 14 of the potential of a career in engineering they were completely switched off to the idea.”