This week, the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) Talent 2030 campaign released data showing that the proportion of female engineering professionals in the UK has risen from 5.5% in 2012 to 6.3% in 2013 . The increase is encouraging, but it is still an extremely small number. Even more worrying, the proportion of female A-level Physics students and Engineering undergraduates has fallen, putting the longer term female representation among the engineering profession at risk. Quite aside from the social impact, we have to recognise the economic consequences - unless more women embark upon engineering careers, the industry will continue to draw from a narrow talent pool. This poses a threat to the UK's competitiveness at a time when economic growth is still tenuous.
From a personal perspective, I find the statistics particularly concerning. As a female professional engineer I have first-hand experience of the inspiring and rewarding career so many women are missing out on. Encouraging more young women to recognise the benefits of an engineering career -and reconsider some of the myths - is one of the reasons I have recently taken over managing the Talent 2030 campaign.
Engineering offers a great career opportunity for women that many girls, parents and teachers are still unaware of. Firstly, engineering delivers a bigger earnings premium than many other careers. In 2012 the average starting salary for engineering and technology graduates was 15.7% more than the average for all graduates .
Secondly, it offers fantastic opportunities to make a difference to society, by addressing some of the major challenges that are affecting the environment and people across the world.
Finally, there are many skills required beyond the basic technical ability that women often excel at and find so rewarding including creativity and teamwork. As a project engineer I was a key part of a much wider project team and I spent just as much of my time doing creative problem-solving with architects, discussing budgets and contracts with the client and coordinating activities with the people on site than I did doing calculations at my desk.
Also, and contrary to much received wisdom, engineering is far from being a 'man's world.' I worked as an engineer for both a large international consultancy and a much smaller "hands-on" company, and in both very different environments I was never once discriminated against for being a woman. Although people were often surprised to see a woman turn up on site and introduce herself as the structural engineer, I found that if I was confident in my decisions and clear in my communication (i.e. behaved like a professional engineer) I quickly gained their respect.
So why aren't more girls choosing engineering?
A large part of the problem starts at the beginning of the pipeline with the choices made by girls aged 11-14 - and the advice they are given. By the time they start making decisions about degree subject and future career options many girls have ruled themselves out of a career in engineering by discounting maths and physics at an earlier age (perhaps because they are unaware of the possibilities and benefits of the profession). It is not surprising that our data shows a decline in girls taking A-level physics when only 51% of maintained co-ed schools sent girls on to take A-level physics in 2011 .
These findings mirror my own experiences in choosing to do engineering. Despite doing maths and physics A-levels it wasn't until I took a careers test aged 17 that I discovered engineering (interestingly, the test didn't take gender into account). I didn't know, or even know of, any female engineers. Unlike medicine and law it was not a career aspiration that was ever talked about by my peers.
This is why the Talent 2030 campaign targets 11-14 year old girls, to give them a source of information about engineering. In its most simplistic form this means letting them know that engineering is a way in which they can 'earn big money' and 'save the planet'. More substantively, it means providing them with role models. Our hope is that promoting these aspirational messages and showcasing the variety of women working in engineering will encourage more girls to make informed subject choices at GCSE and A-level.
Our website www.talent2030.org provides access to much of this material. To complement it we have launched our National Engineering Competition for Girls, sponsored by Rolls Royce and EADS, which offers girls the opportunity to win up to £1000 by suggesting solutions to some of the major challenges of the 21st Century.
The challenge now is for schools, universities, business and Government join us in making sure that the potential engineers of the future are informed, without prejudice, of all the opportunities available to them. We need to work together to provide the advice and support all young people need to make informed decisions at an early age.