With an ageing workforce and a looming skills shortage, we cannot afford to ignore 50% of the population – more women must be encouraged into engineering, according to Dame Ann Dowling, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. John Rutherford reports

The public lecture by Prof Dame Ann Dowling OM DBE FRS FREng, entitled ‘Diversity and Inclusion: A Value Proposition for Engineering’, took place in Trinity College on 26 October. Prof Dowling, a world authority on combustion and acoustics, is professor of mechanical engineering and deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Cambridge and the first female president of the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE).

The event marked the tenth anniversary of the WiSER (Centre for Women in Science and Engineering Research) at Trinity College Dublin and was supported by Engineers Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy.

Proceedings were opened by Prof Eileen Drew, director of WiSER, who noted that in 2002, some 22% of Trinity engineering graduates were female. Today, some 27% of science and engineering junior freshmen are female, giving considerable scope for further improvement if the benchmark 50% gender balance seen in law and medicine is to be replicated.

Prof Dowling was introduced by TCD Provost Dr Patrick Prendergast, who said that diversity and inclusion were fundamental to Trinity’s culture of innovation and the university has taken some notable successful steps in this regard, appointing women to senior officer roles and chair professors.

Prof Dowling commenced her presentation with an acknowledgment that the diversity agenda was not solely about gender. “Representation of minority ethnic groups is low in the UK, at around 6% of the workforce. There is also poor representation of people with disabilities and of people with different sexual orientations,” she said. However, in the context of marking WiSER’s tenth anniversary, she focused on the lack of female engineers in the UK.

Lack of diversity in engineering is of concern in many developed countries. The September 2016 Royal Academy of Engineering global study ‘Engineering and Economic Growth: A Global View’, ranked 99 countries on engineering performance, including gender balance.

“In the UK, only 8% of those employed in professional engineering are female – among the lowest in the developed world [the equivalent figure for Ireland is 14%],” said the RAE president. “Women complete only 22% of the first and higher degrees taken in engineering in the UK.”

Developing economies such as Myanmar, Tunisia and Honduras have the highest proportion of female engineering graduates and postgraduates: 65%, 42% and 41% respectively. “Why such countries are considerably ahead in the diversity agenda is a subject for more detailed research. However, the engineering sectors in these developing economies are relatively young, as are the education systems, and they benefit considerably from a lack of social legacy.”

Early years and career choices

“Our challenge starts in the early years,” said Prof Dowling. “Many modern toys are heavily gendered. Toddlers who play with them pick up a gendered message that becomes ingrained. Messages from society penetrate children’s fast-developing minds – and children’s television programmes do not help.”

ASPIRES, the Kings College London longitudinal study of how young people’s aspirations develop over the 10-14 age period, has shown that gender, ethnicity and social class all shape what careers are perceived as ‘normal’ and desirable among particular groups at an early age.

“The factors that drive teenagers’ behaviour will keep neurologists and psychologists busy for many years to come. But some fundamental issues affect their decision-making. Shortages of specialist teachers in mathematics and physics make a real difference. I can still remember being inspired by a brilliant science teacher. He would bring ordinary gadgets like hairdryers into class and explain the physics behind them.

“Without experienced, specialist science teachers, it is so much more difficult to arrange any ‘practicals’ or interesting experiments that help to explain challenging concepts and excite and enthuse the students. Lessons often become book-based, with laboratory equipment locked away in the store cupboard.”

The RAE president said that this really matters for girls because, as research from University College London shows, they are often less confident in subject like physics than boys. Encouragement from teachers is vital for them to develop confidence and a belief that they can do science and engineering.

Parents are also an important influence in career choice and the study uses the concept of ‘Family Science Capital’ (having a family member in a science-related role, knowing how science works, knowing somebody in a science-related role) as an influencing career choice by the age of 14. Prof Dowling went on to highlight the contributory factors:

  • Acknowledged shortage of specialist and inspiring teachers in maths and physics;
  • Poor careers guidance – beacons of good practice are few;
  • Public attitude to science and engineering, which propagates damaging stereotypes (for example the hard-hat, high-vis vest and boots of ‘Bob the Builder’);
  • Lack of flexibility and poor workplace culture;
  • Lack of female role models in senior engineering positions.

Encouraging involvement in education

The UK is facing a well-documented engineering skills crisis. An ageing workforce means that thousands of skilled technician and professional engineering roles will need replacing over the next ten years. And yet the supply of individuals into engineering occupations is not keeping pace with demand.

According to Prof Dowling, some 53% of all engineering employers are currently seeking new recruits with engineering and technology skills, with the highest demand in the construction (67% of employers), electronics (61%) and aerospace (60%) sectors. Given this known critical shortage of workforce skills, the full pool of potential talent cannot be ignored.

The RAE president said science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects were the academic entry point to engineering. Every year, the UK tests over 700,000 16+ students at GCSE level, where STEM subjects are mandatory. The gender balance is approximately 50/50 and girls marginally outperform boys in both maths and physics.

At the next stage, which is A-Levels, subject choice is optional and approximately 6,000 girls (2%) choose maths or a science subject versus 25,000 boys. “In a single step, from GCSEs sat in May to A-level courses starting in September, we lose 98% of the total cohort who could choose maths and physics,” explained Prof Dowling.

The university stage marks the lowest point of female engagement in engineering, with the notable exceptions being chemical engineering and biomedical degree courses, where student gender is close on parity.

“Engineering courses attract the lowest proportion of female applicants after computer sciences,” said Prof Dowling. “Reflecting the low percentage, only 15% of engineering and technology first degrees are awarded to females – that is around 2,000 young women out of the cohort of 300,000 who sat their GCSEs just five or six years previously. This proportion increases to 23.9% for postgraduate degrees and 24.4% for doctorates.

Statistics for alternative routes to engineering careers via apprenticeships are equally poor, despite decades of initiatives and interventions: only around 4% of apprentices taking engineering and construction apprenticeships are female.

Female engineers in the workforce

A new Royal Academy of Engineering report on employment destinations of undergraduate engineers provides encouraging news on women in engineering roles, however.

“Around 55% of female graduates [in the UK] surveyed six months after graduation have gone into engineering occupations. This is roughly the same proportion as their male counterparts. Over the longer term, our analysis shows that 60% of female engineering graduates are in engineering jobs compared with 70% of male graduates. Again, this is encouraging.”

Engineering and technology graduates in the UK enjoy the second-highest average starting salaries of all subjects. At £27,079, they are just behind medicine and dentistry, and those in chemical engineering receive higher salaries than dentists.

“However, the gender pay gap starts early, with female engineering graduates earning less than their male counterparts – £25,959 vs £27,260,” Prof Dowling continued.

Female engineers report high job satisfaction, although there are still problems within the industry in retaining women. Two-thirds of female engineers do not resume their engineering jobs after taking maternity leave, the research found.

“If women feel unsupported in engineering, they may choose to leave to find jobs in other industries,” Prof Dowling elaborated. “Training and development, access to challenging work and support have all been identified as factors that are crucial to retaining women within the engineering profession.

“Evidence from the US suggests that the lack of flexible, part-time work, and workplace culture all contribute to women’s decisions to leave their jobs. The Academy is currently working on analysis to explore whether the same issues are at play in the UK and to see how well engineering employers meet expectations,” she said.”

Initiatives to improve gender diversity

Prof Dowling reviewed a number of ongoing initiatives in the UK that set out to address the contradictory messages from society and parents about what constitutes an appropriate career choice. Initiatives include:

  • Engineering Diversity Concordat – the backbone of engineering profession in the UK is the Professional Engineering Institutions (PEIs). Supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering, 31 PEIs have signed the Concordat to communicate commitment to equality and inclusion principles and to share ideas and best practice;
  • The RAE Diversity Leadership Group – this was established in 2013 as a collaborative group of around 40 engineering employers, institutions and sector skills councils, to take action to increase diversity across engineering employment. The drive for making this change comes primarily from the imperative to increase the supply of suitably skilled workforce members, in order to reduce the engineering skills gap in the UK. A secondary driver for being more inclusive to a wider demographic is the strength derived from greater diversity of thought and approach to innovation. In this context, diversity encompasses gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background and age. The group is action-orientated, providing a forum for agreeing strategic priorities for collaborative action, by employers, across engineering sectors;
  • The Engineering Talent Project (ETP) – led by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the ETP is supported by a group of major engineering organisations that lend their strategic input to ensure the project delivers mutually reinforcing activities designed to build perceptions about engineering and achieving a critical mass of entrants from the UK engineering talent pipeline by creating widespread appeal for the profession in the next generation;
  • The Engineering a Better World conference 2016 – this event attracted engineering institutions and international development delegates from around the globe to explored how engineering can drive progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and transform the future of the world we live in through cross-country partnerships and collaboration and sharing good practice on an international level.

Prof Dowling ended the lecture with her vision of the not-too-distant future, where a young woman may aspire to a career in engineering with the full support of society and where gender is not even noticed.

“Change is starting to happen but we cannot stop now. I have a vision of a future where it is the norm for young women to aspire to success in exciting engineering careers – and, crucially, to empower them to go on to achieve it through co-ordination and partnership,” she concluded.

Concluding remarks

Prof Jane Grimson, former vice-provost and dean of engineering in Trinity College, and a past president of Engineers Ireland, managed the Q&A. These featured some interesting remarks about marketing of engineering courses using terms such as ‘technical design’, which suppresses the social stereotype, and removal of opt-outs from STEM subjects for secondary-school students to widen potential career pathways.

Engineers Ireland’s director general, Caroline Spillane, acknowledged that lack of diversity in engineering was a concern in many countries and it was a priority issue for Engineers Ireland. “Engineers Ireland has sought to address the gender divide at a grassroots level through our nationwide STEPS initiative, where we encourage all young people to actively explore the world of STEM while also promoting engineering as an exciting and diverse career choice.”

Spillane added that Prof Dowling’s articulated views were shaping opinion, policy and action. “It is not easy sometimes to be a leader. It takes work, effort, dedication – all qualities that you have in abundance,” she said “Your perseverance has allowed you to make great strides in your field, benefiting not just all of us, but the generations to come.”

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The public lecture by Prof Dame Ann Dowling OM DBE FRS FREng, entitled ‘Diversity and Inclusion: A Value Proposition for Engineering’, took place in Trinity College on 26 October. Prof Dowling, a world authority on combustion and acoustics, is professor of mechanical engineering and deputy vice-chancellor at the University...