From education to employment

STEM skills crisis: Female engineers can help close the gap

Victoria Shepherd, Service Excellence Manager at Arqiva

According to the A Level Results announced yesterday (16 Aug), the proportion of women entering STEM subjects has only increased slightly over the past 5 years, from 42.0% in 2013 to 43.4% in 2018. In this article, Victoria Shepherd, Service Excellence Manager at Arqiva, discusses how to reduce the skills gap in engineering, and increase diversity:

The skills shortage in the UK engineering industry is not news to many, but Engineering UK’s suggestion that the country needs 1.8 million new engineers by 2025 just to meet demand is enough to unnerve even the most hardened cynic. Ten years into my engineering career, I am naturally concerned about the shape in which the industry might be in another decade.

More worrying still, however, is the state of female representation in the sector. According to the Women in Engineering Society (WES), the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineers in the whole of Europe, coming in at just 11% of the total workforce.

Given the ongoing struggle for skills, it is crucial that the industry starts finding ways to make engineering an attractive career path for women. So what does it need to do to achieve this?

Breaking Down Gender Barriers

When I joined Arqiva’s engineering apprenticeship scheme ten years ago, I entered what was a 95% male-dominated profession, and inevitably faced some initial challenges as a result. There were a number of occasions, for example, when I would arrive on site for a job with a client and be asked, “so when is the engineer turning up?” Unfortunately, this was just a largely unconscious by-product of what the engineering industry was used to – throughout history, it has been a ‘boys club’, and a female engineer was very much a new entity.

The result was that I spent a lot of time in the early years not only developing my skills, but trying to change any misperceptions around my ability to do my job. Thankfully, there has been significant progress in the industry’s attitudes towards female engineers since then.

The WES recently revealed that the percentage of female engineers has actually doubled in the past decade, and certainly, when I speak to newer members of staff, few seem to view gender as being a barrier in their career progression.

The willingness of companies like Arqiva, to break down the walls of the male-dominated sector and hire female talent has to be a real gateway to this progress. Over the coming years, the industry needs to find ways to exploit the opportunity and close the gap between male and female professionals.

Celebrating STEM

A major barrier on this path to gender parity lies in education, as schools struggle to retain and nurture interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. Despite the ongoing consumerisation of technology, there is still a perception that the STEM subjects are both boring and more suited to boys. Indeed, I saw some interesting research from Microsoft last year, which showed that there is a sharp decline in girls’ interest in STEM subjects between the ages of 11 and 16.

In order to break down such perceptions, classes need to become more varied – demonstrating the range of careers that can be accessed with STEM skills – and more practical.

But the responsibility shouldn’t all rest with schools. The onus should also fall on the engineering industry to highlight the exciting side of these subjects. Arqiva attempts to do this through its STEM ambassador programme – an initiative that involves setting up creative events to engage young boys and girls, and encourage them to consider a career in engineering.

As part of World Science Day a few years ago, we bought TV cameras, screens and a satellite truck to the Winchester Science Centre, and set up a demonstration where students could see themselves in real-time on one screen and then delayed on the other as the signal bounced up to the satellite and down again. It was incredible to see their shocked faces when they realised they had effectively been to space and back.

If young girls are to be persuaded to explore a career in engineering, they need to see STEM subjects in a new light. Over the coming years, businesses and schools must work together to reach out to this audience, and demonstrate that modern day engineering is exciting, innovative and, most importantly, gender inclusive.

Establishing Role Models

In my opinion, another key driver of this perception change will be the presence of female role models to look up to – to make women think, “if they can do it so can I.” This relies on a band of individuals who are willing to step into male-dominated worlds, change perceptions, and inspire a new generation of female engineers.

For our event at Winchester Science Centre, I was chosen to lead the project and talk to the children about what was happening between the satellite and TV screen. In this role I took great pride in showing the students that a woman could be responsible for such an important output, and it certainly seemed to engage many of the young girls present that day.

Senior leaders must find ways to highlight the work of the women who have made a difference in this industry, but so too must those women who have succeeded be willing to shine a light on how attainable a career in engineering is for females from any background. Often, girls will feel intimidated at the prospect of working in an almost exclusively-male workplace, and the sight of a woman flourishing in that sector will provide much needed reassurance.

Tackling the Skills Gap

The engineering sector has started to make important strides in its journey to attract and support female talent. Based on my experiences, I can attest that there has been a clear shift in attitudes around gender since I began my career and there is definitely a far greater sense of openness.

In order to tackle what can only be called a skills gap crisis, engineering firms need to intensify their efforts to promote gender equality. The lowly 11% of female engineers is representative of missed opportunities to bring in a wealth of talent that can help support the success of the industry for years to come.

Victoria Shepherd, Service Excellence Manager at Arqiva

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