More women need to become engineers, and that means letting girls know it’s possible

Who will follow in her footsteps?
Who will follow in her footsteps?
Image: AP Photo/Bullit Marquez
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Historically, women have stayed away from the engineering profession in droves. But with a lack of engineers in some developed economies becoming an acute problem, there are renewed efforts to break the stereotype.

Tuesday (June 23) marked such an effort in the UK. It was the second National Women in Engineering Day, designed as a rallying call for more women to enter the profession. The Women’s Engineering Society, the almost-hundred-year-old charity that thought up the event, wants more girls to choose the school subjects that make engineering as possible choice later on, including the STEM subjects of science, technology, and mathematics.

Despite the charity’s longevity, it’s still fighting an uphill battle. The UK has the lowest proportion of female professional engineer of all western European countries.

And the country badly needs new engineers. The UK needs over a million engineers and technicians by 2020, according to the Royal Academy of Engineering, which will require a doubling of annual engineering graduates and apprentices.

The under-representation of women in engineering is well-known, the RAE says, and not just in Britain. Across the developed world, the percentage of graduates in engineering, manufacturing, and construction who are women hovers below one third:

The 2013 report (pdf, p. 17) from which the data comes highlights the “severe gender imbalance” in Australian degree-level education, a problem “similar to patterns found in many countries, especially in engineering.” In school-age education, the imbalance away from women is less extreme. But once health sciences and nursing were removed, the picture changed. In 2010, only 14% of engineering students were women.

And Australia is doing better than most. In 2008, 37% of total STEM doctoral degrees were awarded to women in Australia. “This was below Portugal and Israel but higher than in most other OECD nations,” the report noted. “Gender imbalance is especially bad in South Korea and Japan.”

The problem is down to deep, unconscious biases in both schools and parenting, the president of the WES told the Independent. “Because it’s so traditionally acceptable for boys to go into the profession, they are pushed down that route by schools, parents, society —the pathway will open up easily,” Dawn Bonfield said. Girls encounter more blocks, both obvious and subtle.

Other other STEM areas, like medical and veterinary science, were once the province of men, but have changed—perhaps the best indication that engineering might also one day open up. In the UK, 83% of medical graduates in 2011 were women, according to the WES.