Article - Issue 42, March 2010

Engaging girls in Engineering

Terry Marsh

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In 2009, the Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) campaign celebrated its 25th anniversary. Its chief executive, Terry Marsh, looks at the organisation’s progress and explains why industry still needs more women in the science and engineering professions.

Mobile technology mind map

Mobile technology mind map - click for bigger picture

In 1980, it was rare to find a female engineer in the UK. While many women were employed by engineering firms, 94% worked as clerical staff, telephone operators and in unskilled trades. University statistics revealed a similar story: the number of full-time UK engineering and technology undergraduates totalled nearly 30,000 but only 7% were women.

Meanwhile, nearly 68% of the 31,609 language and literature undergraduates, were female. As the Engineering Council said at the time: “Statistics, observation and research indicate that many girls drift into the arts because they are regarded as ‘girls’ subjects’, and it is this drift which [we] plan to affect.”

With this in mind, in 1984 the Engineering Council collaborated with the Equal Opportunities Commission to launch the Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) year. Spearheaded by Baroness Beryl Platt, Chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission at the time, the initiative intended to highlight the career opportunities for girls and women in science and engineering professions.

The first WISE bus, equipped with technology workstations and sponsored by Nottingham Trent Polytechnic, was launched by Margaret Thatcher from 10 Downing Street. This was to be the first of five buses to tour schools, providing girls with hands-on engineering experience while meeting women engineers and scientists.

In the same year, a pamphlet entitled Jobs for the girls…why not become an incorporated engineer or technician in electrical and electronic engineering was circulated throughout schools. In addition a leaflet called ‘What is WISE year all about?’ was distributed to education institutions and businesses to highlight the ‘waste of women’s potential in an area of national importance’. Suggestions for action included reassessing teaching methods and establishing school-industry links.

WISE today

Having celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, WISE is still canvassing to get more girls to consider science, engineering and technology careers (see box The WISE campaign today). Converted into an ongoing campaign in 1984, the organisation has since helped to double the percentage of female engineering graduates from 7% then to 15% today.

In addition, larger engineering companies now employ more female engineers. For example, around 15% of trainee apprentice engineers for British Gas are female. Importantly, the traditional mindset of ‘if girls can’t stick it, they shouldn’t try it’ has also changed: today many organisations are taking positive steps to provide a safe and stimulating environment for young women.

The Royal Air Force is one example. Wishing to recruit more female technicians, it has, in conjunction with WISE, set up a ‘girls-only’ work experience week at Cosford airbase, where RAF apprentices are trained. The RAF considered it important to give school-age girls the opportunity to get hands-on experience of real engineering in a less ‘macho’ environment.

Work in progress

In spite of such changes, WISE believes there is more to do to encourage young girls to pursue science and engineering careers. Science is still largely regarded as a boys’ subject; careers advisers are still disinclined to encourage girls to pursue science and technical activities, and courses and course information are male-orientated – all the same issues that were highlighted in 1984..

The percentage of female engineering graduates may have doubled since 1984 but women are still massively under-represented in science, engineering, technology and construction-based careers – at all levels. Only 7% of professional engineers are female, and just 14% of science, engineering and technology managers are female. Meanwhile only 1% of current apprentices in construction and the motor industry are female and only less than 3% in engineering are female.

These percentages are not nearly enough to address the diversity ratio, or indeed reflect the customer base of many organisations such as British Gas, many of whose domestic customers would prefer to see a woman engineer in their home. From an employer point of view, pursuing just 50% of the population is a hopeless recruitment strategy: a more diverse technical population is vital to the nation’s global competitiveness.

Recent years have seen a plateau in the number of women applying for engineering courses in higher education. According to EngineeringUK (an independent charity that promotes engineers, engineering and technology), the number of applications, as well as applicants accepted, has been virtually static across all engineering disciplines since 2003. Why? Put simply, the easy gains have been made and the women who would be attracted into engineering by straightforward exposure to the profession have already entered the industry.

With this in mind, WISE now takes a more strategic approach to encouraging young women into science, engineering, technology and construction roles. Rather than working directly with young women, the organisation collaborates with businesses and other organisations that already work, or want to work, directly with girls. Examples include the RAF, Vodafone, as well as the Smallpeice Trust and Engineering Development Trust, both independent charities providing programmes to promote engineering careers to young people.

WISE asks companies to provide plenty of female role models as part of their activities. Workshops are also organised; for example, Getting girls into engineering: a practical guide, was organised in conjunction with The Royal Academy of Engineering and the UK Resource Centre for Women and invited education institutions and employers to share information.

A greater emphasis is now placed on encouraging companies to produce publications that appeal to young women. WISE has joined forces with Vodafone to produce magazine for teenagers called The Latest Thing, in which the reader can ‘discover the latest techno-mania to hit the high streets’ and ‘meet the girls who are proving that geek is the new chic’. The organisation also collaborated with Vodafone to produce a ‘mind map’ that illustrates the world of mobile technology.

WISE believes that waiting until girls are 14 or more is too late to convince them that they have potential in engineering. A new graphic novel called Postcards from the Future aims to appeal to 10-13 year olds. The story tells of a bored girl sitting in her physics lesson who discovers a postcard in her textbook and is instantly transported to the future, to a city entirely powered by solar technology and project managed by a female engineer – who is actually her future self.

WISE’s recently-launched blog, WISEmology, includes entries from participants taking part in its work experience weeks. It also has pages on the video broadcasting website YouTube and social networking site Facebook.

Looking forward

Schools minister Sarah McCarthy-Fry recently stated that she is keen to get more girls interested in science and engineering. However, the task is not straightforward and will take time. Today, many girls may have to work harder than boys to achieve their GCSE grades, not because they find the subject more difficult but because boys have dominated their science lessons, leaving the girls less supported in their learning. Single sex classes may be one solution; another is to encourage teachers to consider whether their teaching style is still aimed at boys

Research indicates that childhood experiences play a large part in shaping an individual’s confidence in their ability to work in unfamiliar environments or non-traditional careers. Retailers market toys as being ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’; science, engineering and construction-related toys are inevitably marketed for the boys. These labels disappeared in the 70s and 80s, but returned to marketing fashion in the last 10 years, to the possible detriment of both sexes.

There is still obviously much to do before a girl can confidently see herself being a gas engineer with her own van, just as easily as she can see herself being a hairdresser. Following the WISE campaign and the myriad activities from organisations worldwide to get young women into engineering and related careers there is hope that, in another 25 years, things will be different, and there will be no need for WISE.

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