Written by Lauren Ertl, Proposals Engineer, Alpheus Environmental
This Sunday, 23rd June, marks International Women in Engineering Day. Its aim is to raise the profile of women in engineering and encourage more girls and young women to consider engineering as a career, highlighting the amazing opportunities on offer.
It also marks the centenary of the founding of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). On the same day in 1919, a committee of influential women sensed a new dawn. The group ranged from designers and munitions factory managers to wives of eminent engineers.
This year the theme of the Day is to #TransformTheFuture noting the outstanding achievements of female engineers throughout the world. To inspire the future, we should reflect on the past. A lack of role models is often cited as a reason why women shy away from a career in this industry. However, the reality is that our engineering heroines are often unsung.
The original members of the group paved the way for women in industry. Renowned for her adventures as a pilot, Amy Johnson was a qualified engineer and WES president from 1933-34. Johnson’s campaigning inspired others such as Dorothy Spicer, another society member and the first person to hold all four types of aeronautic licenses.
The Society’s initial journal outlined its aims to “encourage and stimulate all women who are interested in engineering”.
We have come a long way since then. However, it is important to note that the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, with countries like Bulgaria and Cyprus leading the way with a 30 per cent female workforce. In 2017, only 15.1 per cent of our engineering undergraduates were women and a mere 11 per cent of the UK’s engineering workforce is female.
So, there is much work still to be done. As a proposals engineer with Alpheus Environmental, it is great to see events such as International Women in Engineering Day taking place, as they are critical to tackling the stigma surrounding women and engineering. The profile of women in engineering must be increased and the diverse career opportunities available to girls in this exciting industry highlighted.
It is also vital for the economy that we encourage more women into the profession. The UK needs to significantly increase its number of engineers. The STEM skills shortage is costing businesses £1.5bn in recruitment every year and for the engineering sector to reduce its skills shortage it needs to employ around 186,000 recruits each year until 2024.
To bridge the gender gap much effort has been placed on encouraging women to go into engineering careers, a move which will greatly benefit the industry and the economy as a whole. However, there is still much to be done if these statistics are anything to go by.
Yet there are considerable opportunities for engineers in what is an incredibly interesting and diverse profession. My own background is chemistry and I specialise in the challenging field of waste treatment. No two days are ever the same and it is the problem-solving element of this that I really enjoy.
The solution is fundamental: we need more women to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, both at school and university. We must also ensure that young women are made aware of the full range of amazing career opportunities, and schools need to ensure that teachers have the critical skills to teach the subjects needed for a career in engineering.
There is also considerable merit in supporting employers’ initiatives with schools, helping girls to get a perspective on engineering careers and spreading the message about the opportunities that this sector has to offer.
This activity is something I have and will be undertaking: talking to pupils and making them aware of the diverse career options available, which will hopefully change their perception of STEM subjects.
But the challenge to get more women into engineering often comes within families, with parents often averse to their daughter entering a career in engineering. Educating parents, as well as the girls themselves is therefore crucial.
If there are female engineers who can act as role models, the likelihood is that the women will have positive attitudes towards exploring STEM careers. When you think of roles models today, you don’t necessarily think of Katie Atkinson, Material Engineer for Jaguar Land Rover, and Dr Sarah Chan, Civil Engineer for EDF Energy. These are however leaders in their fields and their considerable successes need to be made more widely known.
There is an incredibly positive and exciting story to tell about engineering. If we want world-class infrastructure in the future we must take action now to ensure we have a world-class workforce to deliver it, aligning education policy with the needs of businesses and encouraging women to enter this profession.