Things have changed in the STEM industries since Benita Mehra got her degree 25 years ago. And not necessarily for the better. “The numbers of women entering the technology sector have reduced since the 1970s and 1980s,” she says. “And in engineering — my own sector — the numbers of female entrants remain at similar levels. So I wouldn't say we're making headway as far as gender diversity is concerned... which is shocking, actually.”

"The number of women entering the technology sector have reduced since the 1970s and 1980s."

It makes Mehra — President of The Women's Engineering Society — wonder what on earth is going wrong. She has her own theories. “Progressive schools do encourage engineering and science as a career option,” she says. “And that's great. However, schools also want to be seen to get good results, so if a pupil is borderline at science and not expected to achieve an A or B grade, they may be pushed into taking another subject at A Level.” That can effectively end any STEM ambitions they may have.

 

Understanding opportunities

 

Mehra also thinks that women and girls find it difficult to understand what a career in engineering entails because it's a sector that is changing all the time and if they do not have a family member in the profession how do young people who what is on offer. “Many automatically assume that it means wearing a hard hat,” she says. “But the opportunities are infinite. Engineering impacts us socially and examples include the development of prosthetic limbs for people, or creating technology to limit the environmental impact of climate change, or creating smart cities with integrated transport systems, and carbon neutral industries through the development of electric cars and lighting and heating of towns using renewable energy.”

"Many girls automatically assume that engineering means wearing a hard hat."

To reverse this trend, Mehra thinks the problem has to be looked at from a different perspective. “We need to consider engineering in a regional way,” she says. “Take Cumbria, for example, which is known for its nuclear industry. We have to engage with SMEs and get them to share what they are doing by bring greater visibility to their sector. Schools and pupils will then consciously think of nuclear engineering as a viable career option either directly for a large organization or by working for niche organisations who specialize . We are all appreciative of the science centres dotted around around the country. They visibly promote STEM sectors but they all need to find ways of collaborating with their local businesses who operate in the STEM sectors as this will nudge and enable a spark when engaging their many visitors.”

 

Busting myths and stereotypes

 

And engagement really does work. For example, Mehra cites the 'Tim Peake: astronaut' effect as evidence that girls — and boys — can be personally invested in science if it's presented to them in an engrossing way. “When Tim went into space, children everywhere were mesmerised by him and what he was doing. And the way the (female) Project Director of Crossrail talks is so inspiring she makes young people think: 'Wow! That's the job for me.'”

"Women will discount themselves for a job, whereas men will 'have a go' anyway.”

Myths need to be busted, too. For example, young people — and their families — might think that engineering isn't a particularly well-paid profession, when it can be. Parents need to understand the possibilities the industry can offer their daughters, particularly if they have no knowledge or experience of it themselves. Plus, employers and recruiters have to stop subtly dissuading young women to apply for engineering jobs through the words and images they use on adverts and websites. “If women feel they don't have at least 80 per cent of the attributes needed for a particular job, they will discount themselves, whereas men will 'have a go' anyway,” says Mehra. “And many women who do get through to face a recruitment panel start to distance themselves from the role because they feel the cards are stacked against them.”

 

Apprenticeships vs university

 

University is one way to enter the profession; but apprenticeships are increasing in popularity. They are, after all, an opportunity to learn skills on the job, be paid a salary and emerge debt free at the other end. “The problem is we need more parents of A* students to encourage their children to take the apprenticeship route,” says Mehra. “Organisations tell me that people who come through at apprenticeship level are more malleable, more keen to learn and more hungry for success.”

"Better retention may mean might mean restructuring a role."

The engineering sector doesn't just need to recruit more women, says Mehra. It also needs to retain the ones it has by, for example, nurturing those who are returning having taken time out. “Organisations also have to think seriously about women who have carer's responsibilities,” she points out. “That might mean restructuring a role so that it can be done by job share, so this reduces the risk of knowledge being lost when someone leaves as the job has two creative people instead of one . The other problem women have is with forging networks and personal relationships if they are out of the office a lot. Returners' programmes can be valuable in this area, however if social events occur after hours alone this can hinder women and another option is to offer networking during ework time.”