Engineering’s gender balance still stuck in the past

This article was first published on epolitix on 8th August 2012.

As a former engineer Labour MP Chi Onwurah knows the challenges that exist for women in engineering and how successive governments have failed to get more women into the sector.

In 1984 I began my degree in Electrical Engineering at Imperial College. Only 12% of my class mates were girls but, I was assured, many worthy groups were working hard to change all that and just as in medicine and law, the proportion of women in Engineering would soon rise.

Twenty-seven years later, women make up 43% of GPs, 41% of solicitors and even 22% of MPs. But as the IET’s most recent skills report showed, only 6% of professional engineers. In a quarter of a century the percentage of engineering students who are female has not improved one iota. Having spent 23 years as a professional engineer, the Palace of Westminster is the most gender diverse environment I have experienced since I left school This represents a huge loss. A loss to the country in a talent pool half the size it could be, a loss to women in not having entry to these rewarding careers, and a loss to society of the types of engineering that might come from non-male minds.

To drive forward our economy sustainably, engineering needs to be a full part of our society and culture. Given the economic, climatic and social challenges we face as a nation we cannot allow engineering to remain an exclusively male occupation.

I am not underestimating the cultural and social change required. We suffer from a series of vicious circles where the lack of positive images of female engineers reduces the likelihood of us having female engineers to generate positive images. I acknowledge there is an element of chicken and egg, but all too often we blame the egg. We need to break the circles and we need to do it now.

Government, the professional institutions and the media all have a role to play. Politicians need to emphasise the importance of engineering. The £1 million Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, launched by all three party leaders last year, was a positive step, but cutting all funding to the UKRC, the one body charged with increasing the proportion of women in STEM, sent the opposite message as did abandoning Labour’s long term investment framework for STEM. 

Politicians and engineers must join forces to identify timelines for change. When, for example, can we expect the proportion of women fellows of the Royal Academy of Engineering to rise above the current desultory 5%? For how much longer must public funds go to engineering projects which are exclusively male? How can we distinguish between those companies who are really engaging with women and girls and those who think it’s not their fault if there are no women engineers out there? And we should challenge the BBC and other media outlets for the poverty of their engineering coverage – a prize for the best portrayal on TV might be a good start.

Because the rest of the world is changing. The UK already has the lowest proportion of women engineers in the EU. In Africa, China and India parents now want their sons and daughters to grow up to be engineers. We need to cultivate both male and female engineering talent if we are to compete with them.

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