Yesterday, Tuesday 23 June, was National Women in Engineering Day. I spoke to employers, teachers, trade unions and other interested organisations at a South West TUC event to focus on women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
As well as being Labour's spokesperson for Space, my passions include the digital industries, energy, and technology. Combine that with a lifelong interest in gender equality and women's rights, the challenge of encouraging more women into STEM feels like one I can't help but take an interest in.
Today, the number of women actively pursuing careers in STEM disciplines is pitifully low. Figures suggest that women hold just 13% of all STEM roles (and 10% of STEM management roles), even though we account for 46% of the total workforce.
If one takes a closer look at the gender occupational segregation across STEM skilled trades, the numbers are even worse: just 8% of British engineers are women, the lowest proportion in Europe (Latvia performs best, where 30% of its engineers are women).
Theories abound as to why, from complex analysis of the gendered perception of workplace culture to lazy generalisations about women and girls not being interested in science and engineering. But the fact is, too few girls are accessing STEM subjects in our schools and universities, those who do are then less likely than their male peers to progress into STEM careers, whilst barriers to advancement mean the number of women in STEM decreases as the seniority of positions increases.
Much of the evidence suggests that this is at base driven by archaic stereotypes of 'men's work' and 'women's work' that no longer hold true, if ever they did. Research by BIS found significant divisions in parents' career aspirations for their children depending on their gender: just 2% of parents surveyed would encourage their daughters to pursue a career in engineering, whereas 16% wanted their daughters to pursue a career in teaching.
A recent report by ScienceGRRL found that by GCSE-level, gendered career ambitions were already established and attitudes towards STEM subjects were gender-biased. A study by the Campaign for Science and Engineering shows that the gender gap is therefore first evidenced at post-16 study, when many students' course-selections indicate their direction of travel for further study and future work.
Here, girls tend towards biology but there are larger gaps in favour of boys for mathematics and physics. In fact, just one in five A-Level physics students are female; whilst nearly half of state-schools didn't send a single girl on to do A-Level physics. Consequently, the majority of women who progress to study STEM at university focus on medical or veterinary science.
Figures for vocational pathways are perhaps even more shocking. In 2012, only 400 women started an engineering apprenticeship compared to 12,880 men.
There are plenty of organisations determined to tackle the problem. I recently met with an inspiring and talented group of young women who run a non-profit organisation that aims to excite and inform more young women about careers in STEM.
The Stemettes work with established tech-companies to organise 'hackathons' and digital residentials that provide girls around the world an opportunity to test their digital skills and explore careers in the digital industries.
That meeting inspired me to explore with my FEMM colleagues Mary Honeyball and Julie Ward how the European Parliament may be able to do something similar and we have subsequently secured funding for a pan-European pilot project intended to educate and encourage more young women into careers in engineering.c
The pilot project will connect schools and women engineers from across the EU to deliver seminars and workshops focused on engineering, aimed at girls in secondary schools. The project will involve five member states to establish a network of expertise, shared resources and best practice.
This is just one of many small schemes and it will still take many more. If we are to support more women into STEM careers, we have to break down old orthodoxies, challenge stereotypes and remove the barriers to advancement as women progress.
There's good reason for doing so, too. Apart from the fact that encouraging more women into these well-paid jobs will also help to close the gender pay gap (a major priority in the European Commission's Europe 2020 strategy), the STEM sector faces a serious shortage of qualified labour. Estimates suggest that by 2050, the engineering and construction industry will see a shortfall of more than 100,000 workers.
It means the jobs will be there for qualified women, if only we can encourage more young girls to explore and be inspired by STEM subjects early in their education. As the title for the TUC's conference suggests, it's not rocket science.