Involved in this group discussion was;

  • Chloe Agg, Senior Engineer at Cundall
  • Aimi Elias, Project Engineer, Crossrail Liverpool Street for ICE
  • Stephanie Fernades, Principal Policy Advisor at IET
  • Virginia Blackburn was the moderator

VB: Why is it important to change the stereotype of female engineers?

SF: There is an acute problem with women engineers. Only seven per cent of the industry is female and that has been the case for the last 20 years. We need to fulfill the skills shortages by tapping into the skills gap, but negative perceptions start at a very young age. The overriding perception among girls is that it’s messy and dirty and they don’t want to get involved.

AE: Another problem is that women choose STEM subjects but they don’t pursue them after they leave school. We need to understand the causes for that and persuade schools to understand and explore different kinds of careers, while dealing with the problem of the perception of “women in hard hats” by getting companies to promote different visual images.

CA: There is a massive societal misunderstanding of what an engineer actually is. People don’t understand the range of careers on offer. What we need are more spokespeople and role models to go to schools and talk to people.

VB: How can these changes be instituted?

SF: Children should be told these careers can be creative, varied and make a difference.

CA: Yes. For example, if girls were told that a career in engineering could involve making vaccines that hospitals need they might find it much more appealing.

SF: Media and television also have a role to play in promoting engineering. If they have families in engineering they know about it but otherwise they only hear about it elsewhere. It needs to be aspirational.

CA: CSI’s massive popularity led to a surge in people becoming forensic scientists, which we don’t actually need. We need a CSI for engineering.

VB: What is the importance of role models and what initiatives are being put in place to encourage women?

AE: People don’t realize that there are so many levels at which you can enter a career in engineering. If we had more ambassadors they would learn more and they would also be more aware of apprenticeships.

SF: At IET we have established the Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards which recognizes young women who have established themselves as an energetic and technically excellent professional in the engineering or IT sectors. And we need flexibility. We work in a digital age – people can work more from home as well as participating in meetings.

AE: Another issue is structured career breaks and parental leave, leaving the path open for employees to come back. London Underground is one of the few employers who have kept their word about this: quite a few of the female engineers take career breaks. This year Transport for London is celebrating 100 years of women working in the field.

CA: And at Cundall, we offer flexible working practices, which means that 14 per cent of our employees are women. People – men and women - don’t need to work a 10-hour day. There is a perception that people should but we should change that.

SF: It is also important to have women in senior positions because otherwise the impression is they are just not as good.

CA: I am in the process of writing a book aimed at four to seven year olds, which will talk about different types of careers. It’s important we start that young because they must make the right subject choices when they are 15 to 18.

AE: They think technical can’t be creative but actually it’s a marriage of the two.

VB: What is the government doing?

SF: They have started to realize that there’s a problem. They have initiated the Perkins Review of Engineering Skills to examine the issues, although this is not just a matter for government – industry must take some responsibility too.

AE: They are beginning to realize it’s dangerous to exclude girls, but to avoid a backlash from men, it’s important to fine tune the way of approaching these issues to resonate with women. Ofsted needs to become more involved with monitoring the ways schools provide careers advice and make sure more choices are available.

VB: And should schools be doing more?

CA: To a certain degree the education system has lost its way. Where they should be helping young people to become good humans and make their own way in the world, instead it has become focused on teaching students to pass exams to the exclusion of anything else. We need them to talk more about engineering and offer STEM advice, but many are saying they don’t have time.

SF: Parents and teachers are the biggest influences on the children and their choices. And it would be an excellent idea for teachers to go out into the field themselves and get some industrial experience.

CA: Above all else, schools should realize that there are STEM ambassadors who can come out to talk to them. Only then will we begin to see a real change.