News from Andrew Dismore: Comment piece on International Women in Engineering Day
We desperately need to help more women into engineering. It is hard not to feel disappointed that, in 2018, our plea remains the same. Yet, four years on from the first National Women in Engineering Day, progress comes at a slow pace.
It is a point of embarrassment that the UK is lagging behind when it comes to gender parity in engineering. Latvia earns the gold star, with the highest percentage of women in engineering roles at 30 per cent. Yet, at home only 11 per cent of such jobs are undertaken by women; up just two per cent in the past two years. At that rate, it is premature to say a positive trend is emerging.
If we really want to see the tide turn, adequate training is essential. Apprenticeships form one of the best routes through which women can gain the knowledge, skills and qualifications needed to acquire a job in engineering. Sadly, we haven’t yet made the necessary strides when it comes to ensuring women can access the relevant apprenticeship schemes.
Despite the fact that just over half of all London apprenticeships are being undertaken by women, in 2016/17, the last full year for which figures are available, only seven percent of engineering apprenticeships went to women. Worst still, in that year, not one of the higher-level apprenticeships in engineering and manufacturing technologies was undertaken by a woman. If that trend continues, progress will be excruciatingly slow.
The lack of gender equality in engineering does not only impede those women wanting to make headway in this field, it adversely impacts business performance. After all, it is an established fact that increased productivity is just one of the many benefits of gender parity in the workplace.
It should not take something like Brexit truly to bring home the need to help more women take their place in engineering. But with London already in the midst of a skills shortage and with the looming withdrawal from the EU likely to exacerbate this, decision makers are finally starting to wake up to the need to bridge the gap. Whether or not they will act quickly enough to do just that remains to be seen.
Moreover, they face an uphill battle. Whilst there is now little disparity between the genders when it comes to core STEM subjects at GSCE level, the void widens at further education level and beyond. By the time women in the UK reach university, only 15 per cent undertake an engineering degree, according to 2017 figures. And once again, we’re falling behind our international counterparts, with women accounting for over 30 per cent of engineering students in India.
Those in the industry tell us that a huge part of the problem is outdated notions of what is considered ‘male’ and ‘female’ work. Such perceptions made perpetual by many in positions of authority, from parents to teachers. The London Assembly Economy Committee was told that at least on one occasion, girls were removed from a career talk on construction, which is frankly appalling. It appeals that too little is done to counter the image of a man in oily hi-vis as your stereotypical engineer with stories like that of Hedy Lamarr, a famous Hollywood actress in the 1940s whose work on frequency-hopping technology formed a precursor to WiFi.
If we are to encourage more women to pursue a career in engineering, we need to start challenging stereotypes and promote a more accurate image of any industry in which both genders have a place and can enjoy success.
The Women’s Engineering Society are raising the profile of female engineers through their International Women in Engineering Day, 23 June 2018. This year’s theme is ‘Raising the Bar’ to encourage employers to show how they are increasing diversity in engineering.
Here at City Hall, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and a self-identified feminist, is passionate about getting women into STEM subjects and jobs. The Education and Youth Work Programme at City Hall seeks to champion STEM education and careers especially for girls and BAME pupils and to support STEM teacher recruitment and retention in London. As part of this, last November saw the launch of the first-ever Mayor’s London Scientist programme, in partnership with the British Science Association, with a focus on girls and BAME pupils.
But it doesn’t just fall to those in public office to do more to encourage and empower women wanting to work in engineering. Indeed, we all have a role to play.
Let’s mark this International Women in Engineering Day by opening up those discussions with young women and girls, addressing both the barriers and benefits to pursuing a career in this field.
And finally, if you’re the parent or guardian of a girl, and you don’t know how to start having that conversation, here’s a few pointers. Take a trip to Waterloo Bridge and tell your child how it was built by women; play a game of Monopoly, and tell your children it was invented by a woman; and next time you are in a car or bus on a rainy day, tell your child how the window screen wiper was invented by a woman.
Countless women have made, and continue to make, the world a better place through science, technology and engineering. That is the message we should be spreading.
Notes to editors
Andrew Dismore AM is the Labour London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden, and Labour group Spokesperson on the Economy Committee