With the engineering industry facing an on-going skills shortage, the need to find new ways to attract and retain female talent within the sector is of increasing importance. But are gender stereotypes hindering this? 

Ruth Hancock spoke with women working within and outside of the industry to explore the perceptions of what a career in engineering really means.

A career within engineering offers endless opportunities, the range of job types and industry sectors these skill sets are especially valuable within are vast, and the demand for talented professionals is high. Women in Engineering: Overcoming the stereotype

Engineers are the creative problem solvers, mathematicians and physicists; full of new ideas and the know-how to implement them to create new or improve existing solutions. While statistics from the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) found that 64 per cent of employers highlighted a shortage of engineers in the UK as a threat to their business, just 9 per cent of the UK engineering workforce is female. This is the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe. Hence, attracting, retaining and promoting women into engineering is not only essential to increase diversity but also vital for the future sustainability of the industry.

After speaking to a number of successful women in the industry, it is clear that the opportunities of engineering as a career are not widely recognised. When asked why so little of the UK’s engineering workforce is female, the response was unanimous; a lack of understanding as to what it entails. It can be dirty, it can be hands-on and it can be physical, but more often than not it is none of those things. It is so much more and can progress into a wealth of exciting career options.

The perception of roles in engineering is that they entail a lot of hard, laborious work, and are best suited to men. There is a concern about low pay and limited career options too. One of the women I spoke with mentioned that her parents tried to discourage her from pursuing engineering as a profession. They assumed it meant she would become a mechanic and couldn’t see how she could build a career within the field. With friends referring to her role as a man’s job and another woman speaking about how someone asked her if she wore a hard hat and rigger boots to work, it’s clear that there is still a male stereotype surrounding the field.

There are so many different engineering specialist sectors and types of roles within them. From mechanical engineering to quality engineering; the possibilities are endless. A role in one sector may lead to another and most positions can evolve into management roles, and offer possibilities for career progression.

Why choose engineering?

The question ‘What is the best thing about working in engineering?’ received similar responses – it’s diverse, it’s interesting and it leads to a varied and challenging career. Everyone spoke passionately about their careers to date and it was clear that they take great pride in seeing projects through from the initial ideas phase to the physical final products. A WES survey of 300 women found that 84 per cent were either happy or extremely happy with their career choice within engineering.Women in Engineering: Overcoming the stereotype

Engineering and manufacturing businesses want to attract women into their senior management positions. Sadly, they are fishing in a very small pool. Professionals who work in the sector speak of rewarding careers, in more ways than one. Many engineers find themselves working across a wide range of roles throughout their careers, each with its own challenges and opportunities to expand their skills and understanding of the business but the difficulty is in attracting women into the industry in the first place. 

Encouraging future engineers

While those who enjoy cooking may express an interest in becoming a chef, or those who appreciate literature might want to be a writer or an English teacher, those who love to solve problems don’t necessarily make the connection with engineering, and crucially neither do their parents, teachers or friends.

My conversations highlighted that the industry is in desperate need of an image rebrand to help attract people into engineering roles and better educate everyone on the career possibilities. Education, support and encouragement for anyone considering an engineering degree are key for developing future talented professionals of the industry. Careers are exciting and desirable, and they should be marketed as such, not simply as an option if you’re “good with your hands”.  

Engineering is about being creative and solving problems; designing, improving and effective communication. For those individuals who love to think and come up with new ideas then work to make those ideas happen, engineering is a brilliant choice.

Ruth Hancock is Operating Director for Michael Page Engineering and Manufacturing