Engineering… A World Of Possibilities

19th June 2015

Apparently only one per cent of mothers would recommend that their daughters became engineers. Claire Moulds finds out why...

The inaugural National Women in Engineering Day (NWED), designed both to celebrate the achievements of women in the profession and to encourage girls to consider it as a future career, took place in 2014. The response was phenomenal with over 250 schools and 100+ organisations holding events and #nwed trending on Twitter.

“It just took off,” says President of the Hertfordshire-based Women’s Engineering Society, Dawn Bonfield, whose brainchild the event was. “People ask me about it all the time and the interest from the media, schools and people working in the profession has been brilliant.”

It needs to be.

According to the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in their annual Skills and Demand in Industry survey the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe at just 6% which, in turn, is helping to exacerbate a widespread skills shortage in the industry.

Adds Dawn: “The number one reason that a lot of companies are realising they need to get more girls into engineering is because they can’t source the number of recruits they need through half the population alone. The knock-on effect of being unable to fill these jobs is huge. We simply cannot fulfil our potential as a country if we don’t have the workforce required.”

So, just how big is the problem?

In its 2015 State of Engineering report, Engineering UK estimates that a failure to meet projected employer demand for engineering skills could cost the UK economy £27 billion per year from 2022 onwards – the equivalent of building 1,800 schools or 110 hospitals.

“I think part of the problem is our perception of engineering in the UK,” says Dawn. “I worked in France for a time where engineering is highly valued and if you say you’re a professional engineer people understand what that means. Over here people are confused, as we use the term engineer to mean everyone from the person who installs your broadband connection to the person who mends your washing machine. Lack of knowledge of what the profession entails amongst students, their parents and their teachers is probably the number one barrier to girls entering it. That’s why we urgently need better careers advice in schools.”

However, it’s not just more information that girls need. It’s deeply embedded in our culture to think of engineering as a ‘male’ profession which means girls who are considering it as a career need additional support and encouragement so they aren’t dissuaded by outdated opinions, especially if held by those closest to them.

As part of its ‘Engineer a Better World’ campaign the IET commissioned research earlier this year to gain a deeper understanding of the perceptions parents and children aged 9-12 have of engineering today. Amongst other things the survey revealed that half of parents still believe that engineering careers are more for boys, with parents of girls much more likely than parents of boys to describe jobs in engineering as dirty, difficult and boring.

“That’s why initiatives such as National Women in Engineering Day are so important,” adds Dawn. “It’s the perfect opportunity for schools to organise a field trip to see engineers at work, to invite a female engineer to come in and give a talk or to hold a careers fair in order to show their pupils the opportunities that are out there.”

In its report Five Tribes: Personalising Engineering Education the Institution of Mechanical Engineers identifies five ‘tribes’ of young people and recommends that the Government, schools and industry develop different approaches to inspire each about engineering rather than focusing solely on those who are passionate about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects.

“We should be focusing our efforts on other potential recruits,” agrees Dawn. “We will always get the STEM devotee group entering the profession as they are convinced about engineering already. What we’re not good at is engaging with some of the other groups to get them to consider it as a potential career. For example, ‘Social Artists’ are more likely to be positive about art and English language and we need to promote engineering’s creative side to appeal to them.”

It’s not just about sparking that initial interest though, as the flame also needs to be kept alive.

“If a boy expresses an interest in engineering his parents, school and society in general will pick up on it and support him. If a girl says it, the opposite often happens and people start to put things in her way,” adds Dawn. “That’s why, as part of National Women in Engineering Day, we will also be launching a new initiative called Sparxx, which aims to keep in regular contact with these girls in order to feed their enthusiasm. Having enrolled them on to the scheme we will supply them with a steady stream of information and encouragement, through age-appropriate social media channels, covering topics ranging from exhibitions and summer schools to careers advice and competitions in the hope that that initial spark turns into a lifelong career.”

If you’ve been inspired to get involved with National Women in Engineering Day visit for more details, where you can also download a free resource pack

If you’d like to get involved with the Sparxx project, which is currently seeking sponsorship to maximise the initiative’s potential, contact the Women’s Engineering Society at

Abbie Hutty at work. Pic courtesy of Airbus Defence and Space. 

CASE STUDY: It Really Is Rocket Science…

Having been named the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Young Woman Engineer of the Year and the IMechE’s Young Member of the Year in 2013, and won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s ‘Rising Star Award’ in 2014, Stevenage-based Abbie Hutty is proof that there is no limit to what girls can achieve in the field of engineering…

“I had no clear idea what I wanted to do as a career when I was studying for my GCSEs. I was lucky though, as later that year one of the big stories in the news was the Beagle II mission – a UK built lander heading to Mars. The realisation that engineering could mean designing such ground-breaking technology as that used on space missions really inspired me to find out more.

Having looked into other exciting fields that engineers work in, such as robotics and green energy, I was confident that it was the right career for me and chose my A-levels – Maths, Physics, Design Technology and French – accordingly.

I had a brilliant Physics teacher with links to the faculty of Engineering at her old University, who understood what an engineering degree and career might entail. Without her insight I doubt I’d be where I am today, and she was the one who really started the ball rolling. Through her research she discovered the Engineering Education Scheme (EES,) which links teams of students with local companies to work on real life problems, and my year was the first to take part. Through EES I then found out about Headstart and attended one of their week-long courses at the University of Birmingham to learn more about the different types of Engineering.

As I’m most interested in how things physically work, I applied to do a Mechanical Engineering Degree at the University of Surrey because it had strong research departments in space and robotics. We also had the option to do a placement year as part of our course and I worked at a company that makes small satellites.

After graduation I joined the Airbus Defence and Space’s graduate scheme analysing and testing the structures of various spacecraft that will shortly be heading into space. After completing the scheme I was thrilled to be promoted to Spacecraft Structures Engineer on the ExoMars Rover – Europe’s first Rover mission to Mars! To get to work on a Mars mission – the very thing that first inspired me to be an engineer – is just incredible.

The mission is due to launch in 2018 and it’s my job to take a concept design and develop it into something that meets all of the constraints placed upon us from environmental factors such as temperature, radiation and dust, to cost and manufacturing deadlines, to preventing contamination of another planet. I love the challenge!

I found the perfect job for me because other people shed light on a career path that I might never have otherwise explored. That’s why I take every opportunity I can to go and speak to young people to give them an insight into the amazing work that engineers do.

To anyone who is thinking about a career in engineering I’d say: find something that inspires you and go for it! Do your research thoroughly now and your job will never be boring.

To teachers I’d say: refresh your own understanding of what a career in engineering means. As technology moves forward, new career options are opening up all the time, as are the routes into them. Look into some of the technical apprenticeships or sponsored degrees offered by engineering companies and encourage your students to take part in the projects, competitions and courses run by potential employers.

Finally, ignore those people who make negative comments: lots of people told me I would be ‘in grubby overalls fixing vending machines’ – and look at me now…

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