Women in engineering – it's not rocket science

Unionlearn's Kirsi Kekki address the meeting ©TUC
Unionlearn's Kirsi Kekki address the meeting ©TUC

The SWTUC Women's Committee recently set about organising an event at Weston College in Somerset for 2015's Women in Engineering Day.

This conference, on 23 June, brought together academics, trade unionists, politicians and other organisations dedicated to promoting and celebrating women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). The main focus was on women in engineering, particularly through the apprenticeship route. It was ably chaired by Philippa Hogan, NUT, Chair of the SWTUC Women's Committee.

Many of the speakers emphasised that in the UK only about 6% to 8% of working engineers are women. Clare Moody, MEP, stressed that this is the "worst" performance in the EU. The position is somewhat better taking all of the STEM disciplines into account (around 36% of whom are women).

She described a Pilot Project she is sponsoring to address what needs to be done to improve the position. Across the EU, there is predicted to be a 7million shortfall of STEM workers in the coming years and girls and women will be important in making this up.

Several delegates expressed an interest in helping with this project, including speakers from the Women's Engineering Society and STEMWorks.

Several speakers mentioned the lack of female role models in STEM, especially engineering, to encourage girls to think of this as a possible career for them. However, in my introduction to the day on behalf of both SWTUC Women's Committee and the Women's Engineering Society (WES), I pointed out that there are thousands of wonderful women role models to be found via the web, including on the WES website.

In fact, there must be about 1.8million women working in STEM, if 36% of STEM workers are women. Some of these will be engineers, from a wide range of types of engineering. She gave examples from space engineering, electronic engineering, renewable energy, forensic engineering, environmental engineering and materials engineering.

Dr. Sue Durbin from UWE described research she had conducted with successful men and women engineers to identify the different motivations and barriers they faced in accessing and progressing their engineering careers. One clear difference was that the women were more likely to have been passionate about engineering, with a stronger determination to pursue it despite any barriers. The men were more likely to have "fallen in to it" as a career option.

One finding was a clear desire of many of the women for female mentors and in a later presentation Sue and her UWE colleague, Dr Ana Lopes, described a women-for-women mentoring scheme they are developing within Aerospace.

The work that is going on to encourage girls to enjoy STEM at school, and consider engineering as a career was described by a number of speakers. Kirsi Kekki of Unionlearn spoke about a registration scheme being developed for Technician Engineers (for example, Career Smart's RegTech).

Chris Beer from STEMWorks gave examples of activities and workshops for school students, developed and delivered with support and sponsorship from local companies. Emma O'Mara from Babcock International, Devonport, described her role as a STEM Ambassador. Max Hyde of the teachers' union NUT spoke about the resources developed by the NUT to help teachers avoid unconscious stereotyping within the classroom of girls and boys careers.

Roxanne Suerre, an apprentice pipe-fitter at Babcock International, Appledore, North Devon, impressed delegates with her story of determination to pursue an engineering career, despite plenty of advice to the contrary and general discouragement from everyone except her Mum.

In the plenary discussion on what needs to be done, the role of parents emerged as key. The action from the event would seem to be; develop programmes and mechanisms for engaging parents in the excitement of engineering as a career for their daughters – a tall order, but surely not impossible?

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Jackie Longworth

Jackie Longworth MBE is a Vice President of the Women's Engineering Society and a Prospect member, who is very active on the South West TUC Women's Committee and Executive. Until retirement, Jackie was a scientist working in the nuclear industry.

Jackie is Chair of the women's equality network Fair Play SW and has represented the South West TUC on the SW Regional assembly and Sustainability South West.