Women suffer from years of 'unintended gender bias' in engineering

The work engineers do is not gender specific, yet the industry is suffering from years of unintended gender bias. Most women do not intuitively think of pursuing a career in engineering, despite it being an immensely rewarding industry to work in because you are able to make a truly positive impact on society.

Delivering projects that improve the way people live, work and travel is what makes me most proud of my career. It is a great feeling driving along a section of road in Kent that I worked on as a graduate engineer and knowing it has benefited local people for the past 25 years. Seeing the impact of the work we do is when you realise that civil engineering really does touch every aspect of our lives. 

I fell into engineering by default. A careers advisor recommended I pursue engineering or architecture as I enjoyed maths and science. I chose engineering because I didn’t fancy the five-year course required to become an architect. That teenage decision set me off on a wonderfully fulfilling career path. I have had the opportunity to work on a diverse range of projects, meet some really interesting people and travel extensively.

Helping to develop more junior staff members and watching them flourish is now a key focus for me. My maternal instincts kick in when I see individuals I’ve mentored grow in confidence to become well-rounded and successful individuals. I think it’s particularly important that I show young women joining the profession that it is possible to balance a successful career with having a family.

When I started my career I was definitely aware of gender imbalance in the industry, but I never questioned my decision to go into engineering. I have always wanted to be seen as a successful engineer, not a successful female engineer.

Social media and the internet mean young women today have access to much more information that can be used to their advantage. Networks and groups that enable them to meet other women working in the industry is something that didn’t exist for me.

The low number of women pursuing a career in engineering contributes to an overall shortage of young engineers. This is especially true at apprenticeship level, with a significant gender imbalance among engineering apprentices. According to data from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, women represent less than two percent of apprentices in construction, planning and the built environment and their proportion has been in decline since 2012.

Apprenticeships offer an important route into engineering and their vocational focus is very applicable to such a practical sector. They are also an increasingly viable alternative to university, yet they do not appear to be attracting enough young women. Urgent action is required to address this growing gap between the number of male and female apprentices if industry is to avoid future diversity problems.

Part of the solution will be to change outdated perceptions that apprenticeships are predominantly about blue collar manual labour. Encouraging female talent from less socially mobile categories to consider engineering will also help. They might not want to or be able to afford to go to university, so an apprenticeship can offer a worthwhile alternative career path.

Now is a very exciting time to be an engineer. Infrastructure investment in the UK is at an all-time high and there are career opportunities on some truly transformational schemes. As an industry, it is vital we showcase our profession to female students if we want to stop the current gender bias from persisting for at least another generation.

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