Expert Opinion

Boosting participation in science and engineering

A series of events were held at Leeds Beckett’s University Business Centres to celebrate and explore the role of women in leadership. Ahead of her talk in Wakefield on Tuesday 13 November, Professor Dorothy Monekosso shared an insight into her research, which aims to boost the participation of women, and other under-represented groups, in science and engineering.

There is a real shortage of skilled workers and new entrants in the engineering and IT sectors. Surveys indicate that 32 per cent of companies find it difficult to recruit skilled workers and 20 per cent find it difficult to recruit at entry level. The shortage is at all levels. In 2014, the annual shortfall was recorded at 40,000 and in 2017, the annual shortfall was up to 60000 (at skills level four and higher – which is equivalent to the first year of university). The UK needs to significantly increase the number of skilled engineers. The shortage begins with the numbers of young people electing to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at A level and beyond, those taking up employment in the sector and the attrition rates among those who do enter the professions.

There is little difference in take up of STEM and in achievement at GCSE between genders. Yet at A level and beyond there is a stark difference in numbers. In the UK 15 per cent of engineering undergraduates in 2017 were women, in contrast with 30 per cent in India. The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe at 10.6 per cent compared to 30 per cent in Latvia, Bulgaria, and Cyprus (in 2017).

Dorothy Monekosso

Professor Dorothy Monekosso

Male and female engineering undergraduates express similar levels of intent to take up employment in the sector. But by the end of their studies the reality is different. In 2016, on graduation, 66.2 per cent of males entered the profession while only 47.4 per cent of the women did so. More than a third of women with engineering degrees either quit or never enter the profession. In the engineering professions the attrition rate is higher for women compared to men. Reasons cited for women leaving the technical roles include organisation culture, gender stereotyping, being assigned unchallenging projects compared to male counterparts, undervalued/not accepted as engineers, harassment in its various guises, and isolation from supportive networks to name a few.

As we progress up the career ladder, there are fewer and fewer women; often referred to as the leaky pipeline. It must be said that the leaky pipeline cuts across all disciplines. In the UK in 2017, there were 20,550 professors of which 5050 were female, and 126 were BAME female. While the numbers of female engineering undergraduates have remained mostly static in the past two decades, there has been a miniscule upward trend at the top end of the profession.  In 2006, there were 2 per cent of women Fellows of the Royal Academy of Engineering, 4 per cent in 2014, 5 per cent in 2018.

Engineering and the IT sectors can provide worthwhile and rewarding careers. STEM subjects contribute 25 per cent of the total economy and 50 per cent of our exports, with a gross value added of £370billion per year from engineering. Despite the fact the UK produces 36,000 fewer graduates every year than needed, there are relatively high unemployment rates, 9.8 per cent for IT graduates and 8 per cent for electrical and electronic engineering. Much of the focus over the years has been on increasing the number of women entering STEM. Less focus on supporting those already in the sector thereby reducing attrition. Projects within the Inclusion Matters scheme, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, seek to enhance the experience of under-represented groups in the Engineering and Physical Sciences.

In the higher education sector, studies have shown that early successes, such as securing a major research grant early in the career, reduce attrition. Change is needed to ensure under-represented groups have access to the same networking and mentoring opportunities that enhance prospects for early successes. There are real concerns over attrition in the sector and academic institutions need to work towards making STEM departments a place where all talented scientists and engineers want to stay.

Until we see real changes in the culture and environment then women and other under-represented groups will feel engineering professions are not for them and attrition will remain high.

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