Celebrating women in engineering

This June marks the 10th International Women in Engineering Day – an annual event which recognises the incredible work of women engineers across the world. But with just 16.5% of engineers in the UK being women, how much progress is being made to encourage girls and women to enter the profession and take on engineering careers?

In 2010, just over one in ten of those working in engineering roles were women. By 2021, this had increased to 16.5% - a rise from 562,000 women to 936,000.

According to an EngineeringUK report, just 15.2% of those working in ‘core’ engineering roles in 2021 were women, compared to 19% of those working in ‘related engineering’ roles.

Positively, the report outlined that 61 of the 97 roles included in the engineering footprint – a list of standards and occupations classified by industry bodies which constitute ‘engineering’ – saw an increase in the percentage of female workers between 2010 and 2021. Roles included electrical engineers and building and civil engineering technicians.  

But for 13 of the roles, including pipe fitters, rail construction and maintenance operatives, and coal mine operatives, the proportion of women was at 0%, meaning “virtually no women were in these professions in 2010 and this has remained the case years later”.

So, although progress has been made overall in terms of more women working in engineering, the Women’s Engineering Society says the data is still of concern, with the percentage of women in engineering at 16.5% being “possibly the lowest rate in Europe”.

“The number of women in technical level roles, where job growth is greatest, is much lower,” says Elizabeth Donnelly, CEO of the Women’s Engineering Society. “Therefore, we are very much focused on supporting engineering and technology employers to increase diversity and to enable women in the UK to take up opportunities in engineering.”

Benefits of a career in engineering

With the engineering sector booming, Dr Louise Richards, Deputy Dean of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Derby, says there is an opportunity for businesses to utilise women and their expertise to help plug the skills gap and meet workforce demand.

“British engineering design and manufacturing is highly regarded the world over. The truth is though, that UK engineering has opportunities on its order books that far exceed its ability to recruit and retain enough highly skilled engineers – so employers are highly motivated to tap into underrepresented groups, for example, women.

“Employers are going to great lengths to provide environments and conditions that women demand – flexible or compressed working hours, and part-time roles that are so well-paid, that even working part-time you take home an excellent salary.

“Add to that the highly satisfying nature of engineering work – you are providing solutions for people and society to live healthier, happier, more productive lives, in a sustainable and green environment. What could give you a greater sense of purpose in your working life?”

Elizabeth Donnelly agrees: “Engineers at all levels are needed to fill skills gaps from apprentices to engineering graduates, so you’ll be in high demand. It can be a very rewarding career path with the challenging nature of many of the roles being perfect for those who enjoy problem-solving and are analytically minded. There is a huge variety of roles available, and a career in engineering will mean that no two days will ever be the same. Engineering is also becoming a more inclusive and diverse industry, with many initiatives being put in place that support people who have experienced barriers.”

Witty Lai studied a Bachelors degree in Nuclear Engineering and a Masters degree in Chemical and Environmental Engineering, both in Canada, and now works as an Environmental Consultant for WSP – an organisation focused on developing sustainable engineering solutions.

“Having engineering degrees is useful because it means I have problem-solving skills but also when I go to nuclear licensed sites, I understand the processes that are being discussed, what nuclear reactors are and how they work,” Witty explains.

“On top of that, I now understand about land contamination, human health and ecological risk and how these all tie together. And that’s why engineering is so fascinating – there’s so much variety. There’s not just one type of engineering, or one type of role. Engineering can open a lot more doors for you once you’re in the industry too.”

Head shot of Witty Lai

There’s so much variety. There’s not just one type of engineering, or one type of role. Engineering can open a lot more doors for you once you’re in the industry too.

Witty Lai
Environmental Consultant for WSP

What are the barriers?

If the sector is so appealing and offers a wide range of benefits, why are there fewer women in engineering roles than men? What are the obstacles and how can they be tackled?

According to Louise, the barriers are more often in people’s minds – a perception rather than reality.

“Engineering in the UK has come a long way in terms of understanding how to provide the very best conditions for its workforce. However, because of the UK’s long and illustrious industrial heritage, ironically, I think this can actually become a sort of baggage. There is a perception that engineering is ‘oily rag’, unskilled, and you have to work long hours away from home.

“None of this matches the real world. I have many female friends who absolutely love their careers in engineering and feel like they are party to a very well-kept secret! In other parts of the world, the proportion of women in engineering is 50% or more, so I do think culture and the historical perspective are barriers in the UK that need to be torn down.”

But engineering can be an “intimidating profession for women to enter” and can be seen as a male dominated industry, says Elizabeth, who has previously worked in a number of engineering roles.

“Without seeing role models to identify with, women can feel that they wouldn’t fit and that it’s not a job they could do,” she explains. “Also, girls are not always encouraged to study STEM subjects, which has a long-term effect on their career.

“Once in the profession the barriers to staying can be hugely detrimental to a woman’s career. Alongside the problems of ill-fitting PPE and a lack of policies that benefit women, there are financial burdens such as childcare that can make it difficult for women to return to work after maternity leave. A lack of flexibility can also have an effect on women staying in the profession.”

The importance of role-modelling is echoed by Phoebe Lynch, Engineering Manager at Magnox – a company responsible for the safe clean-up of 12 nuclear sites across the UK.

Phoebe started her career as an apprentice electrician, following in her father’s footsteps, and was the only female of 450 men at college when she began her training.

“I was the first woman to work in the workshop at Bradwell nuclear power station and I was probably about 20-30 years younger than the youngest person there. As a child, I loved taking things apart and putting them back together again, so working in a technical role was something I found exciting and interesting.”

Working her way up to become a lead engineer and then engineering section head, Phoebe now leads the Magnox programme of Strategic Enablers, which includes management of Research and Development. She is also Chair of the Women’s Network at Magnox, which comprises male and female members who collectively promote the need for gender diversity and equality.

“If you don’t see someone you relate to in a role, then that has an impact,” she says. “It’s hard to imagine and feel like you can be something when you can’t see it. 

“A lot of great work is being done in the sector to encourage more women to work in engineering, but it’s not happening quickly enough. We have so many new and exciting opportunities across the nuclear lifecycle, but we must do more to attract and retain the diverse talent we need.”

Attracting and retaining women in the engineering industry

In February this year, the Minister for Women and Equalities, Kemi Badenoch, launched a training programme to encourage more women back into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) based careers.

The scheme, which is backed by government funding, aims to target women who have taken lengthy career breaks to care for others, giving them the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.

This is a step in the right direction, according to Dr Richards. She says another way of encouraging more people into the sector is through outreach activity, working with young girls and women in schools, and says universities are crucial to supporting with this.

The University hosts a number of events throughout the year for girls from local schools to spend a day on campus to explore more about STEM subjects. 

In addition to this, the University is working closely with engineering giants to ensure they are doing their bit to help the shortfall.  

Dr Richards, who has been instrumental in the development of Derby’s new Nuclear Skills Academy, explains: “We are working very closely with our local engineering titans: Rolls-Royce, JCB, Alstom, Toyota, and their impressive engineering supply chains. We are helping these organisations to promote themselves to our students, and in local schools, and to explain to women and girls why a career in engineering would suit them.

“Nuclear engineering has a 40% target for women, and so we are doubling down on our efforts at the Nuclear Skills Academy to target and reach girls in primary and secondary schools. We have never been more determined to address the gender balance, so strong is our conviction that girls and women deserve the rewarding experience and satisfaction of a career in engineering.”

exterior of a modern multi-storey building with a glass picture front showing an image of a submarine
The Nuclear Skills Academy opened in Derby in September 2022.

It was through an outreach day that Charley Hare, who works at Rolls-Royce Submarines Ltd, was inspired to join the engineering industry.

Through her school, Charley was invited to Rolls-Royce for an insight day, which led her to successfully securing an apprenticeship with the company, supported by the University of Derby. In 2018, Charley was awarded a Distinction in FdSc Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, and in 2020, she achieved a First Class Honours in BEng (Hons) Mechanical Engineering.

Initially working as a Manufacturing Engineer, progressing to a Manufacturing Engineer – Section Leader, leading a team of ten engineers, Charley is now the Technical Assistant to the President of Rolls-Royce Submarines Ltd.

“What I’ve learned about being an engineer is that everyone is different and approaches things in different ways. In engineering there isn’t always one right answer – often there’s a problem, with many ways to solve it. You need a diverse range of people to come up with those ideas – if you have the same people thinking the same way, you’re going to get the same solutions and that’s not the foundation of an innovative business.

“You develop your stereotypes as a child so reaching that population to really break down those barriers is key, which is why all enterprises need to ensure that they are actively involved in STEM activity.”

Head shot of Dr Louise Richards

You are providing solutions for people and society to live healthier, happier, more productive lives, in a sustainable and green environment. What could give you a greater sense of purpose in your working life?

Dr Louise Richards
Deputy Dean of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Derby

Next steps for the sector

23 June 2023 marks the 10th International Women in Engineering Day (INWED), which was set up by WES to raise the profile of women in engineering and focus attention on the career opportunities available.

“Campaigns such as INWED are vital in increasing the visibility of women in engineering and encouraging other women to join,” says WES’ Elizabeth Donnelly. “There are many initiatives being put in place across engineering companies to encourage women into engineering, however there is always more that should be done.

“Providing women with the same opportunities as men to advance their career is just the start. Companies need to be ensuring that women have correctly fitting PPE designed for a woman’s body, girls need to be encouraged to study STEM subjects at school and be shown that engineering is a career for women. Women will often be left with caring responsibilities both for children and elderly relatives so flexible working and employment policies need to take this into account (and for men too).”

Continuing to celebrate and promote examples of women working in engineering roles and sectors is critical, according to EngineeringUK.

In its 2022 Women in Engineering report, the organisation says: “As a community, we must ensure that progress continues and extends to the most ‘core’ of engineering roles and sectors, and at the highest levels. Identifying practices that help to increase the appeal, recruitment, retention and progression of women in engineering – and sharing this knowledge widely – will be paramount to this.”

Jenny Clementson, a Chartered Engineer – and now a Senior Project Manager at the University of Derby – began working in the engineering industry over 30 years ago.  She said marketing for a career in engineering for women has improved over the years.

“There are many more visuals of women in different engineering roles nowadays which gives a strong message that these jobs are taken up by women, and I believe that has a positive effect but until we get a greater percentage of women in a wider range of engineering roles, issues will remain,” she says.

“We need to promote and show what the profession involves in the day to day and maximise opportunities to reach and link people across global society – particularly those who enjoy science, maths, creative subjects and solving complex problems. It’s really important we keep promoting and pushing until we get more of a societal balance, but we also need to keep challenging how engineering is marketed to ensure there is genuine representation of a wide range of real working scenarios and practitioners.”

Rachel Bennett, Human Factors and Operations Integration Manager at Rolls-Royce SMR, agrees. She has worked in the engineering business for more than 12 years and is a member of the company’s Gender Employee Resource Group.

“The whole engineering industry is waking up to fact that it has to be more inclusive,” she says. “As much as I think government needs to step in and do something to get more girls and women into the industry, I feel it’s up to individual organisations too. We understand that diverse teams give better results, so in theory, every company should be actively driving forward to improve diversity in the workplace.

“It’s important that INWED is celebrated – it provides an opportunity to pause and showcase all the fantastic things that women have done in a range of engineering fields. But it’s a conversation we should be having throughout the year, not just a single day. We need to show others that this is a career for women and that they can succeed, achieve and enjoy the industry.”

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