Lack of gender balance threatens engineering targets

BESA, Building Engineering Services Association, women engineers
Encouraging girls to become engineers — Paul McLaughlin.

Improving the engineering sector’s gender diversity is absolutely fundamental to our future prosperity, says Paul McLaughlin of the Building & Engineering Services Association.

The UK sits 28th out of 28 in the EU league table for numbers of women in engineering. Just 9% of registered UK engineers are female compared to 18% in Spain, 20% in Italy and 26% in Sweden. Out of every 100 people on construction sites just one is a woman. For an industry that needs to modernise and move with the times, these statistics must be a serious wake-up call.

Engineering UK’s latest workforce report showed that Britain needed to recruit and train 69 000 more engineers every year than it does currently to meet employers’ demands. Without these numbers, the UK will not be able to deliver infrastructure projects that are vital to our nation’s economic and social prosperity.

Peter Finegold, head of education and skills at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said the report showed it was economically important to the country that ‘science and technology subjects are promoted to more than just the obvious candidates’.


We are hamstringing ourselves as a sector that suffers from a skills shortage to be recruiting from only half of the potential workforce. There are amazing career opportunities for women and girls in our industry, but gender stereotypes still hold sway and, as a result, our businesses are missing out. And, whether we like it or not, there is clearly an element of unconscious bias that leads to many women being turned off by the building engineering profession.

It is ‘unconscious’ because many employers in engineering and construction are genuinely mystified by the low numbers of women working for them. They would claim to be doing everything they can to encourage women to apply for jobs. Dawn Bonfield, President of the Women’s Engineering Society, does believe that progress has been made on removing barriers to entry for women, but that something more radical is required if we are to wear down generations of stereotyping.

‘Diversity and inclusion principles need to be pervasive — part of every decision that is made, and constantly referenced,’ she said in a report for the Institution of Civil Engineers. ‘The philosophy of the removal of barriers to diversity, in the hope that this is enough to actually create diversity, is not sufficient. The door needs to be unlocked, of course, but it has also got to be opened, and diversity invited in.’

She is not calling for positive discrimination, but for business leaders to make a business decision or see the country fall behind in terms of ‘skills, productivity, staff safety and morale, innovation, profit and creativity’.

Our industry needs a diverse workforce to remain competitive.

‘Disruptive technology, big data, the lifestyle, values and aspirations of young people all point to a future which is different from the past. Engineering needs this diversity and this creativity to thrive and the UK to remain competitive in the international marketplace, and we need to act now to attract this future workforce,’ added Ms Bonfield.

Without a healthy proportion of women, young people and the widest possible ethnic diversity, we will not have the spread of skills we need to advance the science and technology of building engineering services. Diversity is central to our ability to recruit, not just the numbers, but also the type of people we need to meet our technological and process challenges.

Many young people are simply unaware of the wide variety of careers available in our sector, particularly with the growing importance of IT, modern methods of construction (such as offsite) and new materials (such as phase change). Literally anyone can find a role in our industry today, and we must be very careful not to try and ‘pigeonhole’ people by deciding in advance what they are capable of.

More people from creative backgrounds will be needed as engineering takes advantage of digital design tools, augmented reality, 3D printing and many other emerging techniques to deliver ever more advanced building engineering projects.


However, one high-profile female engineer Kate Bellingham — of ‘Tomorrow’s World’ fame – told a recent meeting of the CIBSE Patrons that stereotypes meant young women were making choices at school that precluded them for taking up engineering careers.

‘Nearly half of the schools in England put no girls at all forward for physics A level,’ said Ms Bellingham, adding that the issue of unconscious bias also applies to parents.

BESA supported this year’s National Women in Engineering Day on 23 June. Among its activities is going out to schools to stimulate the interest of girls.

Mothers tend to say they want their sons to be ‘successful’, but their daughters to be ‘happy’, which betrays a different mind-set when preparing young women for the world of work. This tends to reinforce stereotyping that keeps girls away from so-called ‘technical’ subjects in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), she believes.

The way engineering is promoted and portrayed means that young girls, in particular, do not have a positive impression and, therefore, make early subject choices that cut it off as a future option. So, it is not just engineering employers, but also the education profession, which has to undergo ‘culture change’ to make sure it pushes girls in the right direction.

The Smallpeice Trust charity has taken this challenge on board. It works with schools throughout the UK to encourage young people to take an interest in STEM subjects and possible engineering careers. Chief executive Kevin Stenson says that its ‘STEM days’ help to “breathe life into the national curriculum” and enthuse school children aged between 12 and 18.

He says it is harder than ever for teachers to find time to focus on STEM topics, but that the Smallpeice Trust was able to reach 33 000 children last year through its STEM days. 54% of those children now say they will consider a career in engineering — of which almost half are girls.

During a STEM day, children learn to design, build and test an engineering project as well as developing their teamwork and project management skills. To mark the Trust’s 50th anniversary since its founding by Sir Cosby Smallpeice, it will offer 50% of this year’s places to girls with the aim of inspiring them to choose STEM subjects at key decision points in their education, including GCSE and A level.

Employers across our sector can help the trust and other education-based initiatives financially and also by providing engineers to help run STEM days. However, we must then make sure the early enthusiasm created is not then allowed to fade by failing to provide opportunities and appealing career paths.

We must ask ourselves some searching questions. Are we measuring diversity within our organisations? Are we doing enough to encourage the widest possible mix of people to join us? If not, what can we do to change? Are we guilty of unconscious bias and, therefore, do we need to change our organisation’s culture?


There also needs to be a more flexible approach to recruitment — including allowing people from creative backgrounds, who may not have taken a conventional educational route, to join the profession further down the line.

The new Trailblazer apprenticeships, some of which are currently being developed by BESA in partnership with groups of employers ahead of their launch next year, should also be designed to make it much easier for people from different backgrounds and academic paths to find their way into building engineering services.

And we must do more to advertise the exciting projects we undertake and our role in developing a better world. Reaching out to our local communities is a good way of showing why our organisations are worth joining and the rewarding careers we offer.

Above all we need to produce role models and become mentors to young people; women and those from poorly represented ethnic groups to demonstrate the great opportunities that exist in our sector and that everyone is welcome — and capable — of working here.

Paul McLaughlin is chief executive of the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA), which was a sponsor of National Women in Engineering Day (NWED) on June 23. 

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