To tempt more young women into STEM careers, more needs to be done at school level, while companies should rethink the way they present themselves to prospective candidates. Benita Mehra, President of the Women’s Engineering Society, gives her thoughts.
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.”
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.
Do girls know what opportunities there are?
Mehra thinks that women and girls find it difficult to understand what a career in engineering entails. It’s a sector that changes all the time, so, if you do not have a family member in the profession how do you know what is on offer?
“Many girls automatically assume that it means wearing a hard hat,” she says. “But the opportunities are infinite. Engineering impacts us socially: developing prosthetic limbs for people, or creating technology to limit climate change; 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. These are all examples of engineering.”
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 organisation or by working for niche organisations who specialise. We are all appreciative of the science centres dotted around around the country. They visibly promote STEM sectors but they need to work with local STEM businesses to boost that spark of inspiration for potential new recruits.”
Busting gender myths and stereotypes
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.’”
Myths need to be busted. 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% 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.”
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 only occur after hours this can hinder women and another option is to offer networking during work time.”