Engineering not for girls? Educating the educators can shift thinking

Lisa Ingram, Head of Business Improvement , BHMMS
22 June 2017
Image of school children working on STEM projects.
Speak to an expert about your challenge

Everyone involved in our industry knows there’s a problem. Statistic after statistic confirms it. Despite many high-profile campaigns to raise awareness about the issue, not enough women are entering the world of engineering.

For many years, bodies such as the Office for National Statistics and EngineeringUK put the levels of women working in the engineering industry at around 8-9% of the workforce. Perhaps this is not so surprising when you consider that 49% of state schools send no girls to study A-level physics. Of those students who are taking an A-level in the subject, only a fifth are girls - despite getting similar grades at GCSE as boys.

Girls can’t be engineers?

I sit on the board of governors of a local school, and through my conversations with both staff and students I’ve come to understand a lot more about the prevailing attitudes we face. I’ve volunteered at career days at my school, and, when I’ve talked to girls there, careers in health and beauty, childcare or elderly care are mentioned frequently, particularly among low-income white girls. For girls from Asian heritage backgrounds, professional career ambitions seemed to be focused around nursing, law or teaching or medicine. Very few girls had even a basic awareness of what engineering is. A number told me: “girls can’t be engineers - that’s a man’s job”.

Teachers play a pivotal role

It was another remark by two girls I met that really got me thinking about how we could start to tackle this. They clearly had a love of maths and told me that they wanted to be maths teachers when they were older. When I asked them why, they both said “what else can I do with maths?”

To my mind, this was powerful proof that the influence of teachers is everything. That’s been suggested by many others for a long time. One review, for instance, commissioned by Women into Science & Engineering (WISE) noted that “careers advice still does not seem to be providing young people with the information they need”. Another CBI survey in 2011 concluded that 43% of 16-18 year-olds feel they received poor advice or none at all from a careers service. In the same year, The Girlguiding UK (2011) survey found that 43% of girls said they were put off science and engineering careers because they did not know enough about the kind of careers available.

Teachers are so important because they are a constant in the education process. They teach - and have a powerful influence over – cohort after cohort of students. They guide young minds in the most formative stage of their lives. And changing how they do so can affect swaths of young people for years to come.

A revealing series of interviews

As part of my mission to understand the teacher perspective better, I decided to embark upon a series of interviews with teachers in STEM subjects at the school, as well as a careers advisor. I started off by asking them about what career advice they received when they were at school and then asked them about their awareness of other STEM-related careers. The startling thing was that despite their age – whether in their 20s or 40s – they all had limited understanding of the career options for students with aptitude for science and technology. This strongly suggested to me that the campaigns led by government to raise awareness of engineering careers have failed.

Industry must be more present in schools

The conclusion I came to is that industry needs to have a more hands-on role. If successive media and social media campaigns have failed, then we need to step in and directly support and educate teachers, allowing the messages to disseminate more widely.

We can provide teachers with a checklist of what we look for in employees. We can hold inset days so that teachers understand the industry better. We can produce “real life” examples of where the curriculum links to industry. It seems that the problem we face is a deeply ingrained ignorance, perpetuated from generation to generation, about the realities of engineering. We need to step in and provide direct interventions.

These aren’t just ideas but steps I am hoping to take, with the support of senior leaders from both my organisation and the school. But of course there is only so much difference one individual can make. I need like-minded colleagues to share my passion for spreading the word about engineering as a rewarding career for both girls and boys alike – and then perhaps we can start to shift the depressingly recurring pattern of thought about ‘engineering not being for girls’.



Speak to an expert about your challenge.