(BBC News School Report) Where did all the female engineers go?

(Reported by Scarlett Griffiths, Year 9)

By 2020 the UK alone will need more than one million new engineers! This is a vast amount of people but is it achievable? Only if we gain more female in interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mechanics) subjects. A great effort is being made by national schools and the Women’s Engineering Society to do this, and the second International Women in Engineering Day (23rd June 2017) will be held this year and it hopes to inspire young females to get involved. These exertions are starting to make a difference but why, in the 21st century, do males still seem to dominate these academic areas?

The reason behind this surely can’t be any gender-based predisposition, can it? In the UK females often outperform male peers in STEM subjects in GCSE. However, A-level STEM subjects are teeming with our boyish counterparts. According to figures from Engineering UK, only a mere 22 percent of students studying A-Level Physics in 2015 were female. This proportion becomes even sparser in later education with women only making up 12 percent of those enrolling on engineering courses. So, what happens post-GCSE? And how do we prevent these figures from falling even further?

Some girls feel as if engineering is not a career that they are meant to pursue.  It is stereotypically recognised as a masculine occupation and many girls do not even consider engineering as a likely option for their futures. One female engineer said,‘I’m not a fleece-wearing nerd just because I do engineering’. This stereotype, though wrong, still exists in the minds of many young people – that engineering is for the academically freakish. The social pressure placed on young women today is more tangible than ever, and as soon as science loses its compulsory status after GCSE, many do not want to be viewed as ‘a geek’ or ‘nerdy’. This social barrier can refrain girls from getting involved in STEM.

Some people think that biologically females aren’t capable of carrying out tasks that engineers have to do. There are slight differences in the structure and formation of the brain and the hormonal balance differs between genders. It is said that these affect the brain as well and make males more suited to the precise and methodical thinking required in the sciences.

However, many argue that these are tiny differences that shouldn’t affect your overall mental ability. People also think that men have more muscle and are better at physical activities. However, engineering isn’t as physical as people first think, as it mainly involves logical problem solving. Other attempts to explain this imbalance in numbers are: mixed gender schools mean boys are focused on in class, and some think that from birth girls stereotypically receive pink gifts and boys blue. This also carries on in earlier stages of childhood where, for example, a boy would receive a science set and girls a doll.

Efforts are being made by schools too, as they are strongly advising females to choose to continue on with STEM subjects past the compulsory GCSE and are using subjects such as citizenship to promote other job options that involve a variety of subjects including the sciences. Within my school there is a girls’ STEM club, in which they design, test and manufacture products to help those in developing countries. Recently, they took part in a competition run by Soroptimist International in co-ordination Surrey University Guilford, which challenged girls in Years 8 and 9 to design a project that was fit for purpose to help a developing country. On the competition’s program it stated that, ‘it is nationally and internationally recognised that there is a shortage of girls choosing STEM subjects and a growing body of evidence about barriers to subsequent careers.’ The organisation created the challenge to inspire girls and encourage them to overcome these barriers. Moreover, the competition invited all females from a range of STEM careers including solar system physicist and a tunnel engineer to judge the final ideas. These women have become role models to look up to and for girls to understand that they can achieve a career in science. Our school’s team won and from this experience they are excited at the prospect of possibly doing science in the future.

In the future I think that more inspirational speeches and workshops should be run to give girls a taste of engineering as maybe they are unclear on what an engineer actually involves. STEM subjects should also be introduced earlier in a child’s life so they begin to learn about them sooner and develop a bigger interest from a younger age.

Overall, there are no tangible reasons as to why women should not get involved in this fascinating field. If organisations such as the Women’s Engineering Society continue to make an assertive effort to raise awareness these stereotypical ideas can be reversed and brought up to date with our modern day society.