Women in Engineering Day: how to encourage young women into a career in STEM

For many years, across the world, it has been recognised that there is a skills shortage in engineering. There simply aren’t enough engineers required to complete large-scale investment projects of local, national, and international importance.

A recent report by EngineeringUK estimates that 203,000 people with Level 3+ engineering skills will be required per year up to 2024 in order to keep pace with current demand. This figure includes 124,000 engineers and technicians with core engineering skills, and 79,000 related roles requiring a mix of engineering knowledge and other skillsets like project management. According to the report, even the most positive projection of graduates entering into engineering in the UK is 20,000 fewer than needed to keep up this demand.

The 2020 Global Engineering Capability Review recognised that the skills gap in engineering will also impact areas of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) in terms of clean energy, sustainable cities, and climate action. Addressing the engineering skills gap is therefore crucial, to ensure that as a society we can continue to progress and overcome the challenges currently facing our planet.

One of the ways that has been identified to address the engineering skills shortage is to encourage more young women to choose STEM subjects during secondary education, as there is currently a large gender imbalance in both STEM study, and careers in engineering and other STEM-related roles:

  • In 2017/18, 29% of girls’ A-level entries were in STEM subjects, compared with 47% of boys’;
  • When asked if they thought they could become an engineer, if they wanted to, 33% of girls said “no”, compared with 20% of boys;
  • While women comprised 47% of the overall UK workforce in 2018, they made up only 12% of those working in engineering roles…

How do we encourage more school-age children to explore STEM options? 

Young women who are on track to study STEM subjects need mentoring and nurturing. But we also really need to focus on and influence all young people with the right aptitudes and skills, whether or not they have a real interest in STEM – even at a primary school age.

If we look at how many women are considering STEM and entering the engineer sector, it is not enough to bridge the gap; we need a step change. If we want to make the impact that we would like (and need), we have got to get in at school age and inspire our young people about the whole wealth of engineering topics.

This is not about capability: girls tend to outperform boys at both GCSE and A-level. In 2019, in GCSE design & technology, 75% of girls achieved grades A*–C (7–4), compared with 55% of boys. The challenge lies in encouraging young women to pursue what has, until quite recently, been viewed as a masculine career path – this is especially true for young girls who, like me, may begin their early working life introverted and struggle with confidence and self-belief.

Again, mentoring, both within the education sector and within business, is key in order to help those pursuing STEM subjects and careers in engineering to develop and grow.

 

Challenging perceptions

We need to overcome the traditional, and dated, view of an engineer as a “man with a spanner and a set of overalls”. We must get beyond that blinkered image by talking about the real breadth of engineering that exists.

As a society, we have several big and difficult problems to solve – issues which cannot be overcome without engineers and those working in STEM roles – this gives real purpose to the career path. For example: the current environmental challenges, and the engineering solutions needed to overcome this – these are really inspiring things that women and men alike can work together to solve, to make a difference to the future of the planet.

 

Addressing the business reality

The reality is that a lot of engineering environments today are still male dominated and are not as inclusive as we need them to be. When I was starting out in my engineering career, I struggled with self-confidence and found it difficult to be heard – it can be hard to influence people if you feel you are seen in a different way to the rest of the workforce. Businesses need to create an inclusive environment where everyone feels that they can contribute and can make a difference.

It is also important to emphasise that young people really can take control of their own personal development. This is one of the beauties of a career in engineering; you don’t have to follow any particular route in order to be successful.

Yes, secondary followed by tertiary education is one option, but there are an increasing number of apprenticeships accessible to young people – such as those available at Domino – that give the opportunity to explore the vast array of subjects that engineering covers, whilst accessing higher education.

I started off my training in electrical engineering – I wanted to do mechanical engineering, but it wasn’t perceived as a particularly feminine path to take, and I didn’t have the self-belief then to see it through although I did manage to develop into manufacturing engineering later.

My career epiphany came when I did my master’s degree in engineering business management while undertaking an apprentice role at Domino. I immersed myself in the business side of engineering – exploring how to get new products to market; process capability; and the best way to set up a production line; as well as elements of business strategy, marketing, finance, etc. It all fell into place and here I am, nearly 30 years later, as Domino’s COO and first female board member.

 

Conclusion

As a woman who has worked within STEM – within engineering – for over 30 years, I am proud to be a board member at Domino, a Trustee and Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. I am lucky to have had lots of support and mentoring along my career path, and it is something I am committed to giving back through my own personal work, and through my role at Domino, by ensuring that we create the kind of workplace where everyone, irrespective of their gender, is able to feel that they can make a difference, that they can lead, and have a rich and rewarding career path in a STEM-related discipline.

The value that new talent can bring to the engineering community – indeed to the global community – is immeasurable. But encouraging that talent to remain in engineering is also an absolute necessity if we are to address and solve today’s and tomorrow’s real-world problems. Encouraging this new talent into careers in STEM must be a priority for businesses, educators, and governments alike.

 

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