Tackling the gender, pay and skills gaps in the Engineering sector

On 15th January, Ministers from across the government declared 2018 as The Year of Engineering.

The new campaign attempts to offer young people a million direct engineering experiences via school visits, exhibitions and events- in the hopes of creating a future workforce of engineers that is more diverse than the current one, which is 91% male and 94% white.

Engineering is one of the most productive sectors in the UK economy, but it is suffering from a shortfall of an estimated 20,000 engineering graduates per year. Government officials aim to address any misconceptions young people may have about the sector, by uniting with approximately 1,000 industry partners to highlight career opportunities within the field. Skills Minister, Anne Milton said:

“I want to see everyone whatever their background, wherever they live to have a chance to get a rewarding career or job in engineering whether they come via a technical or academic route.”

“The Year of Engineering gives us a great opportunity to work together with business to inspire a new generation of world class engineers. We want to build the science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills that we need for a growing economy, as highlighted in the government’s Industrial Strategy.”

Gbemisola Oladapo, a 21-year-old MEng Chemical Engineering student at The University of Sheffield, has secured what she says is her “dream job”, working next year, within the Supply Chain Management Team at Unilever. Her initial steps towards this point, however, was full of misconceptions.

“I’d made up my own assumptions of what engineering was. I thought it meant being a plumber or a mechanic –and I just didn’t I see any female plumbers or mechanics. I had pigeon-holed engineering as I hadn’t been exposed to it.”

After researching the different disciplines of engineering, taking taster courses and meeting engineers, Gbemisola was able to gain a greater understanding of the options available.

“I just saw how exciting and varied a career in engineering could be. I picked Chemical Engineering because I felt that it was a perfect combination of my A-Levels in Maths, Chemistry and Physics. I felt that this led to the kinds of industries that appealed to me the most.”

Sparking the interest of young girls is something that Gbemisola is particularly passionate about. She says the government campaign can help address some of the doubts girls may have about their future careers.

Nimi story pic edited
Gbemisola Oladapo

As the President of The University of Sheffield’s Women in Engineering Society, Gbemisola oversees specialist projects that inspire the younger generation and improves the employability of the current students. The society also tackles the gender imbalance in engineering, by ensuring female representation.

“You almost sometimes don’t believe you can do something until you see somebody else who has achieved the same thing,” said Gbemisola.

“I’ve been to many events that are solely for women and I think it’s really important to just see that. When you’re in a room surrounded by women who want to pursue the same goal- it really inspires you and makes you realise that you’re not the only one out there. You start to think that this is something that I can do.”

A lot of engineering companies reach out to the members of the Women in Engineering society, in efforts to diversify their organisations. Although Gbemisola is glad about this, she is also very aware of the challenges that can often await women in the industry.

“Statistics show the amount of women that are staying in these professions is still not as high as you would like, especially in the UK. So although steps are being made, I do feel that some industries especially suffer more than others. For example, the automotive industry is still lacking in women,” she said.

Men have long dominated engineering professions, particularly the higher paying production roles. A legacy of occupational segregation, combined with gender bias and differing career opportunities, has led to the common pattern of female engineers not tending to progress past middle management and low-top ranking jobs. This may be for a variety of reasons; including being overlooked for promotion or being unable to assume certain responsibilities, perhaps, following a career break to start a family. According to Julia Muir, CEO of Gaia Innovation, these have been the driving factors of not only the gender pay gap, but the current skills deficit.

Muir said: “We have to celebrate and recognise engineers more, and we have to pay them better. If we paid them better, we wouldn’t be losing so many to other occupations, and if we celebrated them more, we would attract more in. I don’t want to give the impression that engineers are low paid, because they’re not, they are fairly well paid, but the people who have got the capabilities to be very good engineers, can also earn fantastic salaries doing something else.”

Knowing the realities of the gender and pay disparities within engineering, Muir is sceptical about whether the government’s campaign is merely “smoke and mirrors, with no real action being taken.”

Muir attempts to change the engineering sector by encouraging technology and creativity skills in children. Gaia Innovation works closely alongside employers to build long term relationships with schools, using personal and social methods to address the widening skills gap. By hosting events such as employer open days, school children get the chance to see what it’s really like to be an engineer. Muir says “it is important that every engineering opportunity is embedded into the structure of what schools do.”

Research indicates that this is best achieved by targeting primary school pupils, as the patterns of jobs chosen by seven-year-olds mirrors that selected by 17-year-olds. The more children encounter employers whilst in school, the lower their chances of becoming young adults neither in education nor employment, and the more they earn. Children’s aspirations are also shaped by their gender and who they know. So attracting more women into the profession, means the next generation of young girls are likely to follow suit, having seen themselves represented within the sector.

“We need more women to be involved in designing neonatal equipment for premature babies in hospital. We need more women to design tools that will help disabled people. We need women in engineering who can create self-driving cars so that blind people can be transported […] When you start to talk about the fact that engineering liberates people or improves quality of life or creates fantastic opportunities, [people] get much more interested,” said Muir.

Engineering infographic edited
Women’s routes to Engineering jobs (%)
Engineering UK 2017

A practical application of engineering is necessary in engaging interest and inspiring young minds to pursue STEM qualifications. 51% of 11-16 year olds would consider a career in engineering, however, the young people who have most to gain from employer engagement, currently have least access to it.

Traditionally, a lot of weight has been placed on the need for students to vigorously study Maths, Physics and Chemistry. However, a heavy focus upon academia and obtaining chartered engineering status, may appeal to some, but not others. Meaning that many with the ability to do these engineering roles, don’t always pursue them. Those inspired to take a more technical route into the profession, can do so via apprenticeships, a lot of which can be started from entry level positions.

The new norm of a full, equally paid and diverse engineering workforce, is most likely to be achieved when even more, consistent emphasis is placed on creativity, alternative educational options, and the positive impact engineering can have on everyday lives.

Luchia Robinson

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