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«REPORT WOMEN IN ENGINEERING FIXING THE TALENT PIPELINE Amna Silim and Cait Crosse September 2014 © IPPR 2014 Institute for Public Policy Research ...»

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Amna Silim and Cait Crosse

September 2014

© IPPR 2014

Institute for Public Policy Research


IPPR, the Institute for Public Policy Research, is the UK’s

leading progressive thinktank. We are an independent charitable

organisation with more than 40 staff members, paid interns and

visiting fellows. Our main office is in London, with IPPR North, IPPR’s dedicated thinktank for the North of England, operating out of offices in Newcastle and Manchester.

The purpose of our work is to conduct and publish the results of research into and promote public education in the economic, social and political sciences, and in science and technology, including the effect of moral, social, political and scientific factors on public policy and on the living standards of all sections of the community.

IPPR 4th Floor 14 Buckingham Street London WC2N 6DF T: +44 (0)20 7470 6100 E: info@ippr.org www.ippr.org Registered charity no. 800065 This paper was first published in September 2014. © 2014 The contents and opinions in this paper are the authors’ only.


Introduction: Why should we care about the lack of women in engineering?..... 2

1. The scale of the challenge in the UK

2. The choices girls make in education

2.1 Choices at school

2.2 Choices in higher education

2.3 Choices in employment

3. Why do girls reject the idea of a career in engineering?

3.1 Perception of STEM subjects and engineering careers

3.2 Poor understanding of engineering careers and the engineering pathway....... 12

3.3 Families as key influencers

4. Recommendations

Challenge 1: Too few girls acquire the prerequisite qualifications in STEM subjects.... 14 Challenge 2: Addressing the unhelpful perception of STEM and engineering careers, among both girls and their families, as ‘masculine’ or ‘brainy’

Challenge 3: Poor understanding of engineering careers and the engineering pathway

Challenge 4: The STEM ecosystem is fragmented, which increases the likelihood of duplication



Erratum Page 6: an earlier version of this report referred to a report by the Institute of Physics (IOP 2012a) as having found that ‘close to half of all co-ed state secondary schools had no female students studying A-level physics’. However, this figure referred to the proportion of these schools that sent no girls on to take A-level physics, whether at the same school or another (such as a separate sixth form college). We are happy to correct the record.

i IPPR | Women in engineering: Fixing the talent pipeline


Amna Silim was a research fellow at IPPR at the time this report was written.

Cait Crosse was a research intern at IPPR at the time this report was written.


The authors would like to thank BP for their support for this project.

We are also grateful to Tony Dolphin for comments on an earlier draft of this report, and to participants in a roundtable organised by IPPR and BP at an early stage of this project which helped to inform the direction of the research.

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ii IPPR | Women in engineering: Fixing the talent pipeline SUMMARY Women account for only 7 per cent of the professional engineering workforce in the UK, and less than 4 per cent of engineering technicians (IET 2013). This underrepresentation is far greater than in other European countries. Engineering is a well-paid career, so this gender gap represents a missed opportunity to reduce pay inequality in the workforce. With projections showing that the UK will experience a serious shortage of engineers in the coming years, it also represents a threat to the industry, and to the economy more generally.

The analysis presented in this paper demonstrates that the age of 16 is the critical point at which women are lost to a potential career in engineering. For far more women than men, A-level and vocational subject choices made at this age close the pathway into careers in engineering.

However, the evidence suggests that these choices made at 16 are based on attitudes and perceptions about engineering that have been formed over many years. Engineering is still seen as a career for ‘brainy boys’. Teachers, careers guidance, work experience and families do not do enough to counter this view, and are sometimes guilty of perpetuating it.

Seeking to influence women at the age of 16 is too late. The key to getting more women into engineering is to make it an attractive option for girls from an early age, and to keep repeating this message throughout their education and in their lives outside of school.

1 IPPR | Women in engineering: Fixing the talent pipeline




Engineering is crucial to the UK’s economy. It is a diverse industry that plays an important role in maintaining the UK’s competitive edge in the global economy.

Engineers are required to maintain vital national industries and services such as energy, water, sanitation, communications and IT systems, and have also been proven to be important to innovation, research and development capital, IT capital, organisational capital and leadership capital (Kumar et al 2014). Not only is engineering integral to our economy, it is also a profession that is well remunerated and in high demand.

Despite this, the industry struggles to recruit a diverse workforce. Women represent only 7 per cent of the professional engineering workforce (IET 2013). Not only is this huge gender imbalance detrimental to the industry and bad for gender equality, but it also has wider negative implications for the economy. The UK is in great need of more engineers: an additional 87,000 graduate-level engineers are needed each year between now and 2020, but the higher education system is producing only 46,000 engineering graduates annually, which suggests that the UK has a long way to go to fill this potential skills gap (Kumar et al 2014). One way to address this looming skills shortage is to tackle the gender imbalance within the industry.

Third-sector organisations and researchers, motivated by gender equality rather than economic or business concerns, point out that women continue to be concentrated in particular industries, many of which are low paid and low skilled. Encouraging more women into engineering would help to improve women’s position in the labour market, by improving access to better pay and progression opportunities. Engineering graduates have the second-highest starting salaries in the UK, so there is an economic incentive for women to make careers in engineering. However, this is clearly not enough to attract enough of them, and more needs to be done to make engineering an attractive option.

Furthermore, widening women’s participation in engineering would also benefit society, because the people who understand and influence important scientific developments would better reflect the UK population as a whole.

To widen participation, it is important to understand at what points girls and women drop out of potential pathways into employment in engineering. These routes into engineering have been characterised as ‘leaky pipelines’, in that women are lost to the sector at each educational stage. This paper describes these ‘leaky pipelines’. It first sets out headline figures on women in engineering in the UK, contrasting them where possible with those of a number of comparable countries. It then examines each key stage in the path to a career in engineering, in order to better understand the main ‘leaks’ and what interventions might prevent them.

2 IPPR | Women in engineering: Fixing the talent pipeline


IN THE UK Women are underrepresented in engineering. In 2013, women accounted for only 7 per cent of the professional engineering workforce in the UK, and only 4 per cent of engineering technicians – yet women represent 42 per cent of the overall workforce.

This reveals not only that the engineering industry struggles to attract women, but that it currently recruits from a limited talent pool.

Figure 1.1 below illustrates the share, across a number of countries, of engineering professionals who are female.

It demonstrates that a lack of women in engineering is not just a UK phenomenon, but a European problem: averaging across Europe, female engineers make up roughly one-sixth of the engineering workforce (VDI 2010).

However, the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineering professionals in Europe. Eastern European countries tend to have more women working in engineering.

Both Latvia and Hungary outperform the UK in this regard by significant margins, with women accounting for close to a third of engineering professionals in Latvia. The large disparity between the UK and the best performers in Europe indicates that a lot more can be done to improve the gender balance in engineering.

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Differences in educational systems across Europe may explain why other countries are so much more successful than the UK in attracting women into engineering.

Attempts to analyse why other EU countries have higher proportions of female engineers have indicated the importance of students’ school subjects at the age of 18 (Kiwana et al 2011). Cross-country comparisons show that a lower proportion of girls in England, Wales and Northern Ireland choose to study maths and physics at the age of 18 than those in Italy and Sweden – both of which have a higher proportion of female engineers than the UK (ibid). These subjects are important in 3 IPPR | Women in engineering: Fixing the talent pipeline determining whether potential candidates can go on to pursue an academic route into engineering.

The different ways in which science is taught across Europe can help explain the higher proportion of women studying the subject at the age of 18. In Europe, science tends to be split into three separate subjects – physics, biology and chemistry – towards the last few years of lower-secondary education, with students obliged to study at least one of them. The UK secondary school curriculum of A-levels, by contrast, tends to lead to early specialisation, and the UK is one of a number of countries that offers science as an optional, specialist branch. This structure means that students can opt out of learning science subjects altogether in their final years of school (EACEA 2011). Opting out of particular subjects such as science and maths during the final years of school can restrict career pathways, particularly in the sciences.

4 IPPR | Women in engineering: Fixing the talent pipeline



To better understand the significant shortage of women in engineering, it is important to map out where women, sometimes unknowingly, opt out of engineering career pathways. A large part of the problem is that at the age of 16, many girls remove themselves from these pathways. This suggests that the narrowing of the engineering talent pool starts well before people actually choose a particular career.

2.1 Choices at school The gender imbalance in engineering is associated with the subject choices British girls make at school (Kiwana et al 2011). The gender imbalance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects begins post-GCSE, when many young women drop out of STEM-related study. Prior to this point there is no evidence of a gender participation gap in subjects at GCSE. In fact, there has been a significant increase in the number of students studying three individual sciences at GCSE in recent years (JCQ 2013a). Girls are now equally or more likely than boys to achieve an A*–C grade in mathematics, core or additional science, and in each of the three individual sciences (ibid).

Low enrolment in STEM subjects at A-level among girls is not the result of poor attainment. While the popular perception that boys are better than girls at science persists (ASPIRES 2013), girls who go on to pursue science achieve better exam results than their male counterparts in physics and further maths at A-level (JCQ 2013a). However, despite higher attainment in these subjects, fewer girls than boys enter all A-level STEM subjects except biology (JCQ 2013b). These patterns show that one of the key ‘leaks’ in the engineering pipeline occurs between GCSE and A-level.

Figure 2.1 below illustrates the underrepresentation of women in A-level STEM subjects in 2013, with male entrants disproportionately represented in almost all of them.

Only 21 per cent of physics A-level entries, for example, were female. Although still underrepresented, there appears to be a better balance in A-level mathematics, with female students accounting for 40 per cent of all mathematics A-level students. Biology is the only STEM subject in which female students accounted for a greater proportion of entrants than males in 2013.

Among the options for study at A-level that were more popular with UK girls were languages, health studies/science, speech and drama and art and design (OECD 2013, Jin et al 2010).

The lack of young female students in A-level STEM subjects creates a problem further down the line, when not enough women have the right prerequisites to consider an engineering or science degree. The very gendered participation in A-level physics should be a primary concern for policymakers and industry.

Far fewer young women choose physics than young men. There is a significant disparity between the number of young female students who achieve good science grades at GCSEs and the much smaller number of them who go on to study physics at AS- and A-level. In 2013, just over 72,000 girls achieved grades A*–C in GCSE physics (JCQ 2013b). However, only around 10 per cent of these girls will go on to pursue physics at A-level (JCQ 2013a).

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