Blog post

Women in Engineering: What career options are available for females who enjoy science and maths?

To mark International Women’s Day (March 8, 2018), Bev Reardon, Engineering and Technology Academic Outreach Lead in the University of Derby’s College of Engineering and Technology, explains why it is important to get women into the field of engineering.

6 March 2018

My role working in Higher Education often brings me into contact with parents, young people and teachers. Sometimes this will be with small groups at schools and colleges, other times at large, national events such as The Big Bang UK Young Scientists & Engineers Fair – the largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) for young people in the UK.

I am often asked for advice regarding progression to college, university and apprenticeships, and about the range of careers those pathways can lead to. There is always a common thread, which seems in my experience, to be more specific to girls and centres around one question: what career options are there for girls who enjoy maths, science and technical based subjects?

Is there a stigma around engineering?

Sadly, the reaction to my usual reply of ‘engineering’ is both predictable and expected. It seems that the very word ‘engineering’ conjures images of shop floor production work, oily, noisy, factories and physical, heavy work. But engineering is a title which encompasses a wide range of skills, disciplines and careers, from electrical, mechanical, civil, sound, production and manufacturing, product and industrial design to IT, software and cyber security.

Happily, when I go on to explain this, attitudes change and the enormity and flexibility of an engineering-based career really sparks the imagination of both parents and children.

But it is not only about technical and practical skills; those with creative, artistic and design skills will also find a career within engineering. I recently met with a freelance designer who was producing the most beautiful artwork and concept designs for a motorcycle manufacturer, who had combined their illustrative talents with a Mechanical Engineering degree and were already thinking of their next career move- to design the shape and interiors of the H2O cars of the future.

How many engineers in the UK are women?

Fewer than 1 in 10 engineers in the UK are female, according to the Women’s Engineering Society. A report by UNESCO says that in a number of developing countries, there is a sizeable proportion of women engineers. At least three out of 10 engineers are women, for instance, in Costa Rica, Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates (31%), Algeria (32%), Mozambique (34%), Tunisia (41%) and Brunei Darussalam (42%). In Malaysia and Oman, the figure is even an astonishing 50% and 53% respectively.

The report goes on to say that Emirati female engineering students have said that they are attracted to a career in engineering for reasons of financial independence, the high social status associated with this field, the opportunity to engage in creative and challenging projects and the wide range of career opportunities.

How does this tie in with social mobility?

In the UK, social mobility is high on the agenda for government along with schools, colleges, universities and training providers. Surely financial independence, high social status careers and opportunities, along with career satisfaction is the best way to achieve social mobility across gender, ethnicity and social status?

Female engineers have also emphasised to me that they feel empowered to explore different projects and work with different employers and they actively seek new interests and opportunities, from both within the UK and abroad.

Why then, are there so few women choosing an engineering career in the UK?

Misconceptions maybe a factor, but a major consideration is that of female role models. The importance of this has been recognised in sport, with positive and successful role models now playing an active part in the promotion and education of girls, changing attitudes and preconceptions, building confidence and raising aspirations.

In a recent BBC News article, Priyanka Dhopade, of St John’s College Oxford, commented on the positive impact of role models and said that amazing female engineers such as Dame Ann Dowling, Professor Eleanor Stride at Oxford and Professor Alison Nobel at Oxford were her role models and that they don’t get as much visibility as they deserve. She added: “For young girls to look up to someone like Dame Ann Dowling and say, ‘I want to be like her’ – that would make such a huge difference.”

Women in Engineering at Derby
To mark International Women’s Day and celebrate the importance of women in engineering, the University of Derby is hosting an event on Thursday, March 8. I created the event to help to dispel many of the myths and misconceptions regarding careers in engineering for women, but the main focus was to provide positive and inspiring role models from various engineering and technical disciplines.

This year we have role models discussing their career journeys from a variety of disciplines including Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Apps and Mobile Development, Manufacturing and Process Engineering, Maths and Computing and the Built Environment.

The evening is always vibrant and uplifting and, in the spirit of celebrating International Women’s Day, what could be more appropriate than helping and encouraging the next generation of female engineers to design and create the future?

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