June 23, 2015
By Katie Grant
The UK will need more than a million new engineers and technicians in the next five years, but despite the skills shortage women still account for less than 10 per cent of the sector’s workforce.
That is why 23 June will see the second annual National Women in Engineering Day (NWED), organised to focus attention on the wide-ranging career opportunities available to girls and help instil a passion for engineering in future generations of women.
Analysis by the Royal Academy of Engineering suggests we will need more than a million new engineers and technicians by 2020. This will require a doubling of the current number of annual engineering graduates and apprentices.
The UK has the lowest proportion of women in engineering in Europe, according to recent research published by the campaign group Wise. Inspiring girls to pursue a career in engineering is imperative if we are to tackle the looming crisis, leading industry figures including Professor Dame Ann Dowling, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the inventor Sir James Dyson have argued.
NWED is the brainchild of Dawn Bonfield, president of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). She saw the organisation’s 95th anniversary last year as an opportunity to celebrate the work that women do in engineering and to encourage more girls to enter the profession. The inaugural event – which coincided with the first day of Wimbledon and the group stage of the World Cup – exceeded expectations with the hashtag #NWED trending above both sporting events on Twitter, the materials engineersaid.
WES is determined to combat the unconscious biases of many parents and teachers that can discourage girls from pursuing a career in engineering, and hopes that initiatives such as NWED will help achieve this.
While great efforts are being made to address the tremendous skills shortage and encourage young people into engineering, it is mainly boys who are being targeted, said Ms Bonfield, who believes there is not enough being done to appeal to girls and show them it is a viable career option.
“Because it’s so traditionally acceptable for boys to go into the profession, they are pushed down that route by schools, parents, society – the pathway will open up easily.
“But with girls, parents and teachers will often say, ‘engineering’s not really for girls, what about something else?’ Pathways close, barriers are put in the way. They won’t identify with a career in engineering.”
It is crucial to encourage girls to study Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and present them with accessible female role models, said Ms Bonfield.
Equally, it is important to make people aware of the benefits of a diverse workforce, not just for the purposes of inclusion and equality or to plug the skills gap but because it will result in better decision making and, almost certainly, a superior product.
Nayera Aslam, 30, a chartered civil engineer from Birmingham, agreed it is “critical” that industry leaders take steps to create greater diversity in their workforces.
A senior consultant in the transportation sector of the design and engineering firm Aecom, Ms Aslam’s interest in engineering was first ignited with the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994.
“The idea of travelling by train through a tunnel under water as far as France seemed incredible to my young mind. I wanted to find out how this technical feat was possible and whether I could do something similar,” Ms Aslam said.
“Civil engineering touches every aspect of our lives. From roads and bridges to sewers and water-treatment systems, civil engineers have designed so much of what we depend on day to day,” she added.
“Greater diversity is critical. Engineering is all about problem solving. Creativity, ingenuity and lateral thinking are essential skills.
“The greater the diversity – whether in terms of gender, race or background – the better the outcome, I find. We are all the product of our personal and cultural experiences, and we can draw on these diverse backgrounds to be more innovative in solving complex, technical challenges.”