Women are still disproportionately absent from careers in engineering, construction and transport. How can we help redress the balance?
News that men outnumber women by 25 to one on engineering apprenticeships and 56 to one on construction apprenticeships is making a mockery of the government’s plans to solve the UK skills gap by creating 3m apprenticeships by 2020.
“We know that for engineering there’s such a massive skills requirement over the next few years. Currently one in five schoolchildren would have to become an engineer to fill that gap,” says Mark Gale, campaigns manager at Young Women’s Trust which this week released a report into the problem.
The charity found that the number of female engineering apprentices has actually gone down from 5% in 2002-03 to 4% now. “So despite all that investment in trying to get young women into science, technology, engineering and maths workplaces, it’s not really having an impact,” adds Gale. “We want to see employers take positive action where they can start to really make inroads to drastically increase the numbers of young women in those sectors.”
But what should this “positive action” look like? Dana Skelley, Transport for London (TfL)’s director of asset management, and the first woman to be recognised as engineer of the year in 2006, believes raising visibility of women in non-traditional roles is important for encouraging girls into apprenticeships. The company is running a celebration of 100 years of women in transport and staff also go into schools with the Stemnet ambassador programme to educate young people about the opportunities for girls in the industry.
But Skelley says TfL is not considering women-only apprenticeship programmes, even though this is the sort of initiative the Young Women’s Trust recommends.
Gale adds that confusion around equal opportunity legislation means many employers are reluctant to target schemes specifically at women. “Some employers are so fearful of what they’re allowed to do under the existing legislation that they’re taking no action at all,” he says. “They’ve almost been paralysed into doing nothing because they’re so scared that they’re going to be pulled in front of a tribunal if they make the wrong decision. We’d like to see greater clarity from the government in terms of guidance on what employers can do.”
Emily Ellwood is an engineering apprentice at PA Consulting. She believes that to get more girls interested in engineering, it needs to capture their imagination from a young age. She says she hadn’t considered a career in engineering when she was younger because she didn’t have a clear image of what it was.
“At school I had the impression that engineering was all about spanners and hammers and getting dirty,” she says. “[But] the whole idea of engineering is you have to design aspects of people’s lives to make them better. We could be designing a new foetal heart monitor, for example. The buzz we get when we get our products to market is incredible, but I would have never known how amazing that feeling is if I hadn’t given it a chance.”
She adds that more needs to be done to dispel the myths around jobs in the industry to encourage more women to consider it as a career option. “We need to get them from when they’re about five – building stuff, taking stuff apart. We need to start from primary [school] but it needs to be continued through their education.”
Outside the school gates, one of the most immediate influences on young women and their careers are parents, who can be an obstacle to a career in a traditionally non-female sector. A report published in 2014 by Women in Science, Technology and Engineering, found that “mothers, in particular, need to know their daughters could be happy in a career from physics/in engineering, and that the working environment would be supportive”.
It’s understandable that parents may feel that a male-dominated industry might not be a supportive place for their daughters to work. “Being part of a vast minority, whatever the sector, is very challenging,” says Carole Easton, chief executive of Young Women’s Trust. “If you are taking that brave step into a different world you have to be remarkably tough, and not everybody is, and nor should they have to be. We hear that women then get bullied or they get teased and it’s very difficult to sustain that if you don’t feel there’s other people batting on your side.”
There, therefore, needs to be more action beyond the school visits and women-in-white-coats poster campaigns.
“In some more female-dominated sectors like social care and childcare, there does seem to be some shift in terms of young men being able to access those apprenticeships, which just hasn’t happened in those male-dominated industries,” says Gale. “I think that’s a real indication that in order to catch up, those industries do need be taking more positive action.”