Women in Engineering and the STEM Flaw

Nicholas Hill - Chief Executive Officer

By: Nicholas Hill
Chief Executive Officer

9th August 2018

Home » Insights » Women in Engineering and the STEM Flaw

Well yes, I’ve read a lot of commentary on this topic too, and I find much of it quite annoying. The latest one I’ve seen, by the IET, is typical in ascribing the whole problem to gender stereotyping at an early age: girls are irretrievably put off all STEM subjects by the age of 7 because of the role models they see.

What I find annoying about this is the recommendations proffered are always soft actions around fixing the gender stereotype issue itself: improving outreach, information, awareness, role models, status and so on. This seems to me to be a task of a similar order to stopping global warming, or other ‘us against the world’ challenges. And you just know that means nothing effective will be done, and we’ll all be reading the same commentary ten years from now.

However, I was intrigued to see recently some statistics on the number of degrees being awarded in various engineering disciplines, with gender split out of the graphs. Just to baseline how bad the overall problem is: the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, with females representing just 16% of UK undergraduates across all engineering and technology subjects.

Source: www.engineeringuk.com


Electrical and electronic engineering, the most common disciplines in our organisation, are faring particularly badly. Total graduate numbers have flat-lined for ten years, with a total cohort of around 500 females entering higher education courses. With numbers like that you’ll be lucky to see a single CV from a female engineer, let alone fix your organisation’s gender imbalance. But wait a minute, the equivalent figures for ‘all engineering disciplines’ show a doubling since 2007, from 2,500 to over 5,000. This might just reflect the strong growth in overall numbers in some disciplines, such as mechanical engineering, which has also doubled since 2007.

This in itself is interesting, considering that total numbers in electrical and electronic engineering have barely grown at all in the same period. Could it be that, of all engineering subjects, mechanical engineering is the most accessible to the layperson? It’s the only discipline where what is going on is frequently in plain sight. You can see ‘how stuff works’ every time you build a tower with bricks or ride a bike or build a Lego model. Most of the other engineering disciplines, and especially electronics, are getting ever more esoteric and obscure.

Try explaining to any (young) person what is really going on in their smartphone, at a level of detail where you’re tackling the electronics, not the apps that sit on top. Could it be that young people, in general, have less and less idea what electronics is? There is no meaningful exposure to the subject in schools or anywhere else unless you happen to do physics, and even then the coverage is elementary.

Let’s get back to the point. I meet a lot of people working the electronics industry, for companies large and small, in many sectors and locations. When I ask “what is your biggest obstacle to growth?” the ability to find enough young engineers usually tops the list. Indeed, Engineering UK report that 46% of engineering employers feel this way. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to grow the economy through designing and making things that society needs?

Influencing Change

What to do? Well for the sake of our industry it needs to be something more direct and fast acting than taking on humanity’s baked-in gender stereotyping. How about influencing market forces, as there’s something clearly broken in the ‘market’ for graduates?

We have huge demand for electrical and electronic engineering graduates, which has created intense competition amongst employers and seriously pushed up average starting salaries. At the same time, we have graduates in other subjects who are ending up in minimum-wage jobs because they can’t find a vacancy.

Source: www.engineeringuk.com


However, these factors don’t seem to be influencing the decisions A-level students are making about subject choices at university, presumably because the market signal is too weak. Let’s say the government identified the degree subjects that the country’s economy was most in need of. Once identified, they offer to pay the tuition fees of students in those subjects, either fully or partially – and even add a cost of living grant on top.

This is more than a financial incentive for people to take particular subjects; it would be an important signal that the government deeply valued these skill sets and that they are essential for a healthy economy.

In a purely academic sense, all degrees are as worthy as each other and how ‘useful’ they are shouldn’t be a factor. But let’s get this into perspective: the UK is woefully short of electronics engineers, especially female ones. And having the government create incentives at the academic level for the next generation to follow this hard but rewarding profession, in my eyes, would be a good place to start.

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Well yes, I’ve read a lot of commentary on this topic too, and I find much of it quite annoying. The latest one I’ve seen, by the IET, is typical in ascribing the whole problem to gender stereotyping at an early age: girls are irretrievably put off all STEM subjects by the age of 7 because of the role models they see.

What I find annoying about this is the recommendations proffered are always soft actions around fixing the gender stereotype issue itself: improving outreach, information, awareness, role models, status and so on. This seems to me to be a task of a similar order to stopping global warming, or other ‘us against the world’ challenges. And you just know that means nothing effective will be done, and we’ll all be reading the same commentary ten years from now.

However, I was intrigued to see recently some statistics on the number of degrees being awarded in various engineering disciplines, with gender split out of the graphs. Just to baseline how bad the overall problem is: the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, with females representing just 16% of UK undergraduates across all engineering and technology subjects.

Source: www.engineeringuk.com


Electrical and electronic engineering, the most common disciplines in our organisation, are faring particularly badly. Total graduate numbers have flat-lined for ten years, with a total cohort of around 500 females entering higher education courses. With numbers like that you’ll be lucky to see a single CV from a female engineer, let alone fix your organisation’s gender imbalance. But wait a minute, the equivalent figures for ‘all engineering disciplines’ show a doubling since 2007, from 2,500 to over 5,000. This might just reflect the strong growth in overall numbers in some disciplines, such as mechanical engineering, which has also doubled since 2007.

This in itself is interesting, considering that total numbers in electrical and electronic engineering have barely grown at all in the same period. Could it be that, of all engineering subjects, mechanical engineering is the most accessible to the layperson? It’s the only discipline where what is going on is frequently in plain sight. You can see ‘how stuff works’ every time you build a tower with bricks or ride a bike or build a Lego model. Most of the other engineering disciplines, and especially electronics, are getting ever more esoteric and obscure.

Try explaining to any (young) person what is really going on in their smartphone, at a level of detail where you’re tackling the electronics, not the apps that sit on top. Could it be that young people, in general, have less and less idea what electronics is? There is no meaningful exposure to the subject in schools or anywhere else unless you happen to do physics, and even then the coverage is elementary.

Let’s get back to the point. I meet a lot of people working the electronics industry, for companies large and small, in many sectors and locations. When I ask “what is your biggest obstacle to growth?” the ability to find enough young engineers usually tops the list. Indeed, Engineering UK report that 46% of engineering employers feel this way. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to grow the economy through designing and making things that society needs?

Influencing Change

What to do? Well for the sake of our industry it needs to be something more direct and fast acting than taking on humanity’s baked-in gender stereotyping. How about influencing market forces, as there’s something clearly broken in the ‘market’ for graduates?

We have huge demand for electrical and electronic engineering graduates, which has created intense competition amongst employers and seriously pushed up average starting salaries. At the same time, we have graduates in other subjects who are ending up in minimum-wage jobs because they can’t find a vacancy.

Source: www.engineeringuk.com


However, these factors don’t seem to be influencing the decisions A-level students are making about subject choices at university, presumably because the market signal is too weak. Let’s say the government identified the degree subjects that the country’s economy was most in need of. Once identified, they offer to pay the tuition fees of students in those subjects, either fully or partially – and even add a cost of living grant on top.

This is more than a financial incentive for people to take particular subjects; it would be an important signal that the government deeply valued these skill sets and that they are essential for a healthy economy.

In a purely academic sense, all degrees are as worthy as each other and how ‘useful’ they are shouldn’t be a factor. But let’s get this into perspective: the UK is woefully short of electronics engineers, especially female ones. And having the government create incentives at the academic level for the next generation to follow this hard but rewarding profession, in my eyes, would be a good place to start.

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