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Women in STEM 2019

Women engineers offer a new perspective


Elizabeth Donnelly


Just over 100 years ago, women engineers were welcomed into factories, so why do they still only make up around 12% of the engineering workforce?

In 1919, the founders of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) explained that women could be engineers but, 100 years later, we’re still talking about how women ‘should’ be engineers, says Elizabeth Donnelly, Chief Executive Officer of WES. “The percentage of women in the engineering workforce is barely into double figures at just over 12%.”

Education for the 21st century

The solution, she believes, lies in a profound change of mindset from all sectors of society, starting with education. “The current EBacc curriculum in schools is still resolutely linked to the one created by Robert Morant in 1904,” explains Donnelly. “Why are we educating our children in the same way we were over 100 years ago when their world is so dramatically different?

With a focus on exams and no coursework, it does little to prepare girls or boys for the workplace. Engineering is all about collaboration and teamwork; no-one works alone or relies solely on memory.”

Employers in schools

To make careers advice more relevant, employers and those in the industry should be the primary advisers. “When employers go into schools, two things happen,” says Donnelly. “First, expectations about potential careers are changed and girls and boys are suddenly presented with possibilities they didn’t know existed. Secondly, when employers talk to young people, particularly young women, they are blown away by their talents, education, ability and spark. It’s important that employers realise young people are not an amorphous mass but are creative, interested and interesting.”

The apprenticeship alternative

Only 7% of women in engineering are apprentices. “WES is highlighting the apprenticeship route this year with its Top 50 Women in Engineering Awards (WE50) aimed at current and former apprentices,” says Donnelly. “We want to show that some women who have been through apprenticeships are now running companies or working at a senior level within engineering.

“I’m pleased the government has introduced the Apprenticeship Levy for companies who take on apprentices. In some companies, an advanced apprenticeship will allow you to get your degree without debt while you’re paid and getting hands-on experience.”

Flexibility and support

WES supports women and girls throughout their engineering careers and Donnelly notes that many women leave their engineering careers because of inflexibility from employers when they need it most. “Women are more likely to have caring responsibilities of all different kinds and, if an employer can be flexible so that a woman’s hours work for her, then she will stay in the job and repay the investment in her training many times over.”

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