Tapping into talent: women in engineering

Atkins | 12 Sep 2013 | Comments

Engineering students are second only to medics in securing full-time jobs and earning good salaries. And yet, few women choose this path. With a serious skills shortfall threatening the engineering industry’s growth plans, what more can be done to attract young women to the profession?

The UK’s engineering industry is predominantly male. According to Engineering UK, just 8.7 per cent of professional engineers are women – the lowest proportion in Europe. Addressing this gender imbalance has become crucial to the industry but with just one in seven women studying engineering courses at university, tapping into this stream of potential talent is a significant challenge.

Atkins – named as one of The Times Top 50 Employers for Women in 2013 – has been proactively pursuing this agenda. It’s been working with industry partners to conduct in-depth research to determine what inspires women to choose an engineering career. The resulting survey of 300 female engineers – called Britain’s got talented female engineers – found that the profession offers very high levels of job satisfaction: 98 per cent said that engineering was a rewarding career, while 84 per cent said they were happy or extremely happy in their work.

When respondents were asked what makes it enjoyable or rewarding, many said it was the problem solving aspects of their role. In fact, three-quarters of the women surveyed said that an interest in problem solving had been a major motivation for choosing an engineering career.

“We set out to learn more about women in our industry, how they feel about their own career paths and what they think we can do to encourage more young women to follow in their footsteps,” says Atkins’ UK HR director, Sue Cooper. “The results are both interesting and inspiring. We can now use these positive messages and stories to help encourage future generations.”

The variety of roles covered by the blanket term ‘engineer’ was in evidence, with women who responded to the survey working in sectors ranging from energy, construction, aerospace and rail to manufacturing, medical devices, marine engineering and defence. In terms of accessing this diverse range of opportunities, 69 per cent said that being female had made no difference to them when they were applying for jobs.

And there was also positive news on the ability of female engineers to balance work and personal responsibilities: flexible working arrangements and policies were enjoyed by 75 per cent, while 79 per cent said they benefited from a supportive working environment and co-workers.

Despite the benefits, the survey showed more work needs to be done to promote them to young women. A lack of awareness of what engineers actually do was cited by 87 per cent of respondents as being a reason why more women didn’t choose engineering as a career, while 77 per cent said there was a lack of knowledge about the diversity of the profession and 75 per cent thought that engineering was perceived as more of a male career. Interestingly, 30 per cent of respondents had fathers who were engineers, while few female engineering role models were mentioned (though many mentioned inspiring women from outside the profession).

Raising the profile

One thing was clear from the research: engineering has an image problem among young women, who are heavily influenced by popular culture to choose other paths. Better careers information in schools (70 per cent) and work experience placements alongside female engineers (64 per cent) were seen as the two best ways to encourage young women to consider an engineering career.

At car maker Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), rapid growth over the past few years has led to increasing demand for skills. In partnership with Birmingham Metropolitan College in the UK, the auto manufacturer recently ran a course – Inspiring Tomorrow’s Engineers: Young Women in the Know – for 28 female students aged between 16 and 18 at its West Midlands manufacturing sites. The students met female apprentices, graduates, engineers and managers, and spent a day on work experience at the plant. They found out about apprentice and graduate schemes and took part in workshops on job applications, assessment centres and interview techniques. JLR also runs sponsorship schemes for female undergraduate students.

“Decisions on what to study at GCSE level are vital in shaping young people’s future educational and career paths. Such interventions, alongside better careers advice at an early stage, are vital if the pipeline of STEM-qualified young women is to be improved,” says Cooper .

A better place to work

Engineering firms are also analysing how they can create a better working environment for women. Offering more flexible working arrangements is key – and that doesn’t mean a prescriptive one-size-fits-all approach that involves a traditional working week with every other Friday off. Nor does it necessarily involve women working part-time. The survey found that 81 per cent of respondents worked full-time but flexibly, whether working from home or different hours.

A degree of flexibility is required on both sides to balance working commitments and personal responsibilities such as childcare. In an increasingly globalised world, this can be a positive advantage for employers: an employee who leaves work early to pick up their children and then does more work after the kids are in bed could be ideally placed to collaborate on projects with colleagues elsewhere in the world.

Providing more flexible working patterns is likely to help more women to return to work after having a child, improving retention and generating a larger talent pool from which to select the managers of the future. The Daphne Jackson Trust, an independent charity, is an excellent example of how this can work in practice. It provides flexible, part-time paid fellowships in UK universities and research establishments to help both female and male professionals in STEM fields to return to their careers after a break of two years or more.

Planning for the future

Tapping into new engineering talent will remain a priority for the engineering industry in the years ahead as it strives to ensure that it has the skills it needs to meet future challenges. To progress towards the goal of a more balanced workforce, the companies involved in this recent survey have committed to using the findings to promote engineering as a diverse and rewarding career for women; developing role models who can share their experience; and exploring ways of proactively reaching students and teachers with useful information on the industry.

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