Here come the girls
Encouraging females to pursue a career in engineering
The gender gap
Fewer than 8 per cent of engineering professionals in the UK are female (WISE, 2015). An unconscious gender bias exists among the professional field that continues to affect females in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) throughout their working career (IET, 2015). The gender gap in industry is mirrored inside schools and universities with females far less likely to choose to study STEM-related subjects.
A snapshot of the secondary school in this study shows current uptake by girls of subjects within the Design and Technology department, which could lead to an engineering career, is poor. Only 15 per cent of S3 girls had opted to take a related subject, which gives a gender ratio of approximately 5:1. This trend continues throughout the senior phase.
The importance of STEM
Scotland’s economy urgently needs individuals with STEM training, especially numeracy and digital skills, as these can be transferred across different career fields (Education for Engineering, 2013; Scottish Government, 2016a). An increase in the provision of STEM education plays a part in the Scottish Government’s Economic Strategy to improve equality, with plans to raise attainment and shrink the attainment gap (Scottish Government, 2016a). The 2017 National Improvement Framework sets out to engage teachers with more opportunities for STEM professional development (Scottish Government, 2016b).
A range of research shows that exposing young women to female role models who have successful STEM careers has a positive impact by breaking stereotypes and enhancing commitment to pursue STEM careers (Stout et al. 2011; Young et al. 2013).This study was based on the recommendations set out by Education for Engineering, focusing on motivation and communication at secondary school age. The pilot intervention aimed to increase interest by showcasing a variety of jobs in engineering through the use of female role models, which would help to inform young females about the opportunities in the field.
An initial survey was carried out to establish a baseline measure. All S2 girls were surveyed during their Design and Technology classes, which allowed for supervision to minimise influence by peers. Engineers with links to the local community were contacted to ask for their support. They completed a job profile and provided photos and video clips for a 50-minute presentation for all S2 girls. At the end of the presentation, the pupils were asked to get into groups of four and then number themselves from 1 to 4, going to the corner allocated for their number. This was to try to split up friendship groups to minimise peer pressure when filling out the second survey. Survey results There were a high number of completed surveys, which allowed for comparison between the whole year group before and after the intervention.
After the intervention an overwhelming 100 per cent stated they now had a better understanding of engineering. This shows that the 13 per cent of pupils who stated they initially didn’t know enough about engineering are better informed to make career choices. Fifty-eight per cent of the S2 female pupils surveyed are now more likely to consider a career in engineering. This is a huge improvement from the initial survey which showed only a small number of pupils were considering this career route.
I wish people would stop being impressed by the fact that I’m a woman engineer. We want it to be normal to see beautiful, social, intelligent women out there that are engineers
The response in the second survey showed that the highest number of young females felt the most interesting thing they learnt from the presentation was the range of jobs that fall under the banner of engineering. Looking specifically at individual pupil responses revealed a more in-depth analysis of the impact of the intervention. The choice of words used to describe engineering changed dramatically. Before the presentation pupils tended to use nouns, such as bridges, cars and plumber, or use negative adjectives, such as confusing, boring and greasy. The second survey showed the same question being answered with mostly positive adjectives by the same pupils, such as creative, practical and exciting, showing a transformative change.
In the second survey some girls described engineering as hard work, difficult or challenging. For those who used these adjectives they also stated they are more likely to choose a career in engineering. This appears to show that the girls surveyed would find a job they deemed demanding to be rewarding and enjoyable.
Girls were not put off by the large gender gap currently present in engineering. Some noted that the most interesting thing they’d learnt was the lack of females in engineering and still stated they were more likely to consider engineering for a career.
The intervention was successful in various ways – 100 per cent of female S2 pupils involved stated they had a better understanding of engineering. This new-found knowledge about engineering led to 58 per cent being more likely to consider a career in engineering, while 82 per cent of those surveyed were also more likely to take Design and Technology subjects. However, this was not mirrored in the uptake for S3 courses, which only produced a small percentage increase. The female pupils involved also had a greater appreciation of engineering, changing from thinking it was boring to exciting. It can be hypothesised that as more females take up a career in engineering there will be more role models for young women, therefore accelerating the uptake of engineering by the female population.
The results also show that there are areas to improve upon, possibly targeting male peers or parents to further breakdown stereotypes and help prevent any potential negative influence from stopping girls pursuing STEM. Overall, the introduction of successful female role models in engineering has had a positive impact, which has increased the likelihood of female pupils choosing a career in engineering by changing pupils’ perceptions of engineering.
- Education for Engineering, (2013). Aspiration & Opportunity. Fair access to the engineering profession. London.
- IET (The Institution of Engineering and Technology) (2015). Progressing women in STEM roles. Scottish Government (2016 a). Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics. Consultation on a strategy for education & training. Edinburgh.
- Scottish Government (2016 b). 2017 National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan for Scottish Education. Edinburgh.
- Stout, J.G., Dasgupta, N., Hunsinger, M. and McManus, M.A. (2011). STEMing the tide. Journal of Personal Social Psychology. 100(2), 255–70.
- WISE, (2015). Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: The Talent Pipeline from Classroom to Boardroom. Bradford.
- Young, D.M., Rudman, L.A., Buettner, H.M. and McLean, M.C. (2013). The Influence of Female Role Models on Women’s Implicit Science Cognitions. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 37(3), 283–92.
About the Author
Rebecca Reid is a teacher at Kirkwall Grammar School in Orkney.