Engineering is dominated by men, but the women successfully breaking into the sector report good things. Barriers to entry for women are numerable, but career satisfaction is high; more than 80% of female engineers are either happy or extremely happy with their career choice, and 98% find their job rewarding, according to a 2013 survey by the Royal Academy of Engineering.
Yet, despite good prospects – engineering students are second only to medics in securing full-time jobs and earning good salaries – the number of women working in the sector remains woefully low.
“Women make up just 12.3% of all engineers in the UK, and only one in five of jobs are held by women in the wider engineering sector as a whole,” says Elizabeth Donnelly, CEO of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), a charity and professional network that celebrates its centenary this year.
Attracting more female talent to the UK engineering sector – and retaining those people – is vital for economic growth and financial stability. Britain suffers from an acute shortage of engineers – 1.8 million new engineers and technicians are needed by 2025 – as well as a “leaky pipeline”, meaning women often fail to continue to progress their engineering careers.
Award-winning chartered electrical engineer Kerrine Bryan believes addressing the sector’s diversity problem is key to closing the skills gap. To help tackle the issue at the roots, she began publishing career-themed children’s books, including My Mummy Is An Engineer.
“We’re losing potential engineers at every stage of life, and it starts from a young age because bias and misconceptions in media and toys often implant ideas into children’s minds that engineering is for men and involves getting your hands dirty and fixing things, which doesn’t appeal to girls if they’re brought up to believe they should be quiet, neat and tidy,” she says.
Lucy Gill, a qualified engineer, Stem ambassador and founder of Digills consulting, agrees that inspiring girls from a young age about the creative aspect of engineering is key to recruiting more women to the sector.
“There’s so much embedded in our culture saying engineering isn’t for girls, and people still think of engineers as the men who fix your washing machine, not the people at the forefront of designing creative solutions to the world’s problems,” she says.
Those messages dissuade girls from studying subjects required for engineering careers. Among girls aged 11-14, almost half (46.4%) would consider a career in engineering, compared with 70.3% of boys. But this drops to 25.4% of girls aged 16-18, compared with 51.9% of boys. At A-level, girls make up just 22% of physics students.
Yet, girls outperform boys in engineering fields of study. “In all Stem A-levels, except chemistry, more girls get A*-C grades than boys, and this pattern continues at degree level,” says Donnelly. “Almost 80% of female engineering students will get a first or an upper second-class degree, compared with 74.6% of male students.
“Engineering involves everyone and has an effect on all our lives, whether it’s biomedical engineering when you have a surgical procedure, or electrical engineering when you’re watching TV,” says Jodie Howlett, a mechanical engineering student, who will join the European Space Agency when she graduates, and is one of the top 50 women under 35 in engineering in the country. “That’s why the sector needs greater diversity; we need it to better represent society as a whole.”
Nonetheless, sustained efforts to persuade women to pursue engineering careers are yielding fruit, albeit slowly. “When WES started in 1919, there were no female engineers, and 50 years later only half a percent of all engineers in the UK were women,” adds Donnelly. “Now, we’re beginning to make quite considerable inroads, so it’s an exciting time to join a sector that will change radically over the next 50 years.”
There’s positive news from the sector when it comes to pay parity, too. The gender pay gap for engineering sector occupations is 18.7% – more than double the UK’s average pay gap of 8.6% – but among graduates, the pay gap for first salaries is just 1.19%.
“It’s very exciting that women starting a career in engineering can expect to earn the same as their male counterparts,” says Donnelly.
In 2017, the median basic salary for engineering professionals (engineers, architects, surveyors) was £35,000 for women and £41,545 for men, and this gap widens considerably at director level, with women paid on average £20,000 less than men, according to a 2017 salary survey.
“And as more women enter the sector, I think we’ll see the pay gap at director level closing. Ongoing activism and pressure from young women mean it’s likely to reduce quite dramatically, I suspect, over the next 10 years.”
Female engineers in numbers
The number of engineering jobs in the UK
The percentage of female engineers in the UK