Blog Type, IPT Blog | May 2017

Promoting Diversity in Engineering

Words by Prof Alison Hodge MBE PhD CEng CPhys, FInstP FIET FHEA FWES, Aston University

Introduction

It’s not for the want of trying! So why are there still challenges achieving a more diverse workforce in engineering, particular more women?

Let us consider some of the influences -

  • Children
  • People who influence children
  • Young people developing their careers
  • Engineering in the environments in which we live and work

·    Children of pre-school and school age

Young children naturally explore the world around them. As they explore, they develop their senses and hand–eye-brain coordination. They learn how things work - what feels hot or cold, soft or smooth, what breaks or bounces when dropped. Children typically ask questions – Why? How? In finding answers, they experiment for themselves. This is also the essence of engineering - practical and creative, backed by theoretical and mathematical analyses. Children are showing latent engineering talent as they play with toys and start to use objects as tools, even while still in their prams.

It is recognised that it is easier to learn a sport or a musical instrument while young and the same applies to engineering. Children can be encouraged and enthused with good guidance and support. Conversely, remedying poor practice or overturning bad experiences later in life is more difficult.

Influencing children and STEM campaigns

How are engineers portrayed and perceived by children and their families, in the press and media? Typically male, in traditional roles - with gears and spanners. Females are more often depicted as users of engineered products, and in pink! These stereotypes are inappropriate.

At school, few children have much exposure to engineering. The closest subjects are science, technology and maths. Combined or double science means that there is even less emphasis on the distinctive features of chemistry, physics and biology, or the careers dependent on them such as engineering. The STEM acronym confuses further. To increase the interest in engineering, it is vital that the identity of the physical sciences is restored.

Engineering requires sound numerical and mathematical ability but balanced by a sound understanding of engineering principles. The current over-emphasis on maths puts off younger people who, otherwise, would make competent engineers. Practical activities take time, equipment and facilities that incur additional costs. Investment in practical work pays dividends, children love it and learn more from it.  

There are a plethora of well-intentioned campaigns aiming to attract more girls into science, engineering, and technology. The biosciences are popular with girls and young women, while the traditional dominance of boys and men in the physical sciences and engineering persist. Campaigns, however, tend to reach children who are already inclined towards engineering, supported by willing family members, friends, teachers who alert them to activities, escort them, and in many instances pay. After one-off events, children find it difficult to find further information, clarify their thoughts and resolve their concerns. Advice is available but everyday influences from media, family and teachers dampen many sparks of enthusiasm. Children need consistent and reinforced messages that they understand.

Competition from other disciplines

The decline of many engineering industries reduced visible opportunities for engineers and people with technical skills. Schools encourage talented children, particularly in sciences, to pursue other good careers - medicine, dentistry, veterinary science, law. Why not physics and engineering? Children enjoy being stretched and rewarded when successful. Attempting to promote engineering but surrounding it with words like global challenges and diversity problems, will only dissuade.

Physics is seen as a difficult subject, especially when progressing from combined science GCSE. It risks scoring fewer UCAS points so affects college / university entrance and school league tables. Worse still, many schools restrict A-Level choices - 90% of physics A-Levels are awarded to children at 50% of schools. This limited exposure to physics is increasingly restricting capabilities required in the biosciences as well as engineering.  

Teachers qualified in physics are in very short supply, they need considerably greater recognition and support, making it attractive and competitive with other careers. The school physics curriculum must support children, engage them actively and eliminate rote learning. Up to date careers guidance from those with genuine experience of engineering is essential.

Industry, business and the environments in which we live and work

Employers are wanting engineers so should adopt market forces to drive up incentives and rewards. They also must recognise that knowledge, tools and techniques of engineering move rapidly so staff need to maintain currency of their expertise.

Employers and society more widely, must eliminate male dominated stereotypes and promote positive aspects of engineering. Out of date images may not seem important but their frequency makes a significant impact, outweighing the effects of initiatives. (Are such stereotypes even a form of discrimination?) There are opportunities to highlight where engineering helps people all day, every day. Engineering enables all transport, buildings, medical care, food, communications - in fact society would cease to function without it.

So what to do?

There is no single lever that will bring more women into engineering. There must be concerted and consistent actions by media, companies, education, charities and government bodies to change the images and impressions created. This is not an occasional campaign or initiative.