The Changing Landscape for Women in Engineering

The growth of the engineering industry has seen the UK workplace become more diverse – it is clear to see that attitudes are changing in the industry as more and more women opt for a career in the engineering sector.

Back in 2013, the UK had the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, with less than 10 per cent, as Latvia, Bulgaria, and Cyprus led the way with almost 30 per cent.

By 2015 women made up just nine per cent of the engineering workforce, a figure that grew to 11 per cent by 2017. In the latest figures produced by Engineering UK, 12.37 per cent of engineers in the UK are women, representing a 25 per cent jump in numbers in just four years.

Across science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), some of the most influential figures in the industries are women. For example, British chemist Rosalind Franklin is among the trailblazers for women in engineering, having played a key role in the understanding of DNA in the late 1940s.

More recently, American computer scientist Katie Bouman has been celebrated for engineering the first image of a black hole after leading the creation of an algorithm that resulted in a visualisation of a supermassive black hole in 2019.

Women sign up to engineering courses

With an increasing number of teenage girls being inspired by industry leaders, there has also been an upturn in females signing up to educational courses. Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) statistics show that over 24,000 females graduated from core STEM subjects in 2018, almost 2,000 more than in 2015.

Newcastle College has seen a 60 per cent rise in the number of females signing up to engineering courses compared to the previous year. The launch of new courses, including the Foundation Degree in Rail Engineering and an Offshore Renewables and Subsea Engineering Diploma has coincided with the rising interest in the industry.

A college spokesperson said: “It’s really encouraging to see the rise in girls signing up to engineering subjects and I hope this is something that we see continue. Our own focus on showcasing our female students and the general push to encourage more girls into STEM is definitely having a positive effect. It’s fantastic when girls approach us at Open Events about engineering, even if they seem a little hesitant, it often just takes a bit of encouragement.”

A case in point

Charlotte Palmer is studying Offshore Renewables and Subsea Engineering Diploma at Newcastle College and said her decision to study engineering came as a shock to her family.

“My parents didn’t really have a lot to do with my decision,” she says. “They encouraged me to make up my own mind, but I think they were a bit surprised.”

Ms Palmer, who lives close to one of the UK’s leading offshore energy support bases at Port of Blyth, said she signed up to the course after seeing the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, which, although centred around women in sport, reminds women that they can do whatever they want.

She added: “I suppose that made me think more about options I might not have before. I told my friends I was enrolling on this course and a lot of them still said ‘that’s for boys’ or ‘I don’t want to be the only girl’ but the way I see it is, I’m only the only girl because that’s what other girls have been afraid of.

“I’ve visited the Energy Academy and met girls on other energy and engineering courses, just not my own. They had similar experiences to me. Most girls do still think that way and I’m not sure how to change that.”

Smashing stereotypes and building for the future

Tia Jones is in the first year of a Foundation Degree in Rail Engineering at Newcastle College and has already landed a job as a track worker with Ganymede Solutions.

“With my dad being a joiner, I’ve always been interested in engineering,” said Ms Jones. “Myself and my brother had always played with Lego when we were younger and I had helped my dad fix cars, so engineering has always been in my background.”

Throughout British Science Week a ‘smashing stereotypes’ campaign will be led by the British Science Association to tackle stereotypes in STEM. The campaign will highlight the broad range of jobs and careers available, using the #EverydayScientist hashtag to promote awareness on social media channels.

With the campaign targeting diversity awareness, it will explore ethnic minorities working in STEM as well as gender stereotypes, and more widely, the desire to create a more inclusive working sector.

As the number of women in STEM careers is set to reach one million in 2020, it is clear that women will play a major role in the future of these industries. Already, women make up around 30 per cent of the world’s researchers, and the rise of new and more varied courses will only bolster this development.