THE BLOG
18/03/2015 11:58 GMT | Updated 18/05/2015 06:59 BST

Where Are All the Women? Does Engineering Need an Image Overhaul to Attract Top Talent?

By 2022, the UK will need at least 1.82 million engineers, scientists and technology professionals, according to Dame Prof. Ann Dowling, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. As it stands, fewer than 130,000 of those will be women.

There's a definite engineering skills gap. But more worryingly, there's a gender gap. Only 7% of engineers in the UK are women and that figure is going to get lower, given the number of female engineering apprentices currently working.

More pronounced than the under-representation in engineering is the apparent lack of desire among females to pursue engineering in the first place. As many as half of mixed state schools have zero girls taking physics at A-level. Single sex schools have a slightly higher hit rate.

More than 70 students aged 16-19 took part in Engineer Your Future, an initiative launched by Crossrail to increase participation in engineering. Crossrail says that perceptions of engineering are a problem. It's a 'man's job,' according to the children it spoke to.

A recent study into perceptions of manliness in the labour market conducted by foul weather clothing manufacturer Stormline bears this out. it asked over 1,000 adults to rank jobs and industries on a scale of manliness and engineer was rated as the manliest job. Soldier, butcher, chef, blacksmith, surgeon and chef also rated very highly.

"We commissioned the research to see if perceptions of certain jobs might make them unattractive to otherwise ideal candidates. There's certainly a lack of females in engineering, particularly in the UK where the study was conducted, and we believe perceptions of what is men's and women's work plays a part in that. It would be good to see these stereotypes fade and for there to be a more balanced workforce in these traditionally male-dominated jobs" said Regan McMillan of Stormline.

Working conditions was a big influencer on perceptions of what constitutes men's work. One in five said harsh working conditions made a job manly. Only one job out of the top ten 'manliest' was office based.

Steve Grylls is director of Apex Office, a firm specialising in creative office interiors. He believes modern offices are too nice to be considered 'manly' environments. "Offices are designed to be comfortable, safe and attractive places to work in. You remove all unnecessary challenges to productivity when designing an office.

"Everything is organised and neat. Your climate can be altered at the push of a button. Aesthetics are respected. Compared to a freezing cold trawler deck or an underground construction site, an office is paradise. It's easy to see why offices aren't viewed as inherently manly places and boats, building sites and oil rigs are. It's ironic that it takes a team of engineers to design and create these office spaces in the first place."

But 'manliness' aside, shouldn't engineering still be an attractive job to all? The average salary for a mechanical engineer starting out is just under £30,000, according to payscale.com. The work is varied, rewarding and travel is a common perk. So why are perceptions of engineering jobs steering people away from careers in which they'd excel? By the time the potential next Elon Musk or Marissa Mayer realises that engineering isn't all frostbite and swearing, it's too late.

Caroline Livesey is a senior project engineer currently working as a geotechnical design consultant. She's also Ironman All World Athlete Champion 2014, so knows more than most about being a woman in a so-called man's world. She believes it's more than just perceptions that make engineering a hard profession for women.

"I think this stems from a societal bias that tends to pigeonhole women and men into specific roles. I think the knock-on impact of this is that we are inclined to assume that women cannot make good engineers as it is not a role that we naturally see them in.

"The downside of this is that women continue to have to break down those barriers in order to progress in this industry. They have to work far harder than their male counterparts to earn respect, to progress, and to be trusted technically.

"Engineering is a project based career -and the work can often include short and long term visits to sites. When women in engineering have children this can limit their ability to respond to those requests - which are considered a key part of many engineering roles.

"There are not enough role models for young girls in the industry. Perhaps an X-factor type show to find someone to build the next "world's tallest building" would make engineering seem more accessible. We have to somehow find a way to make engineering seem accessible to all people from all genders and all walks of life."

Humanising the job and joining the dots between engineering achievements and the teams involved would be a step in the right direction.

The Big Bang Fair is having a positive impact in this regard. A mammoth celebration of engineering, science and maths, it enables young people to meet engineers involved in some of the most exciting projects currently on the go.

There's a competition for young achievers too and it's encouraging to see that last year's Young Engineer of the Year and Young Scientists of the Year were all female; the former being Rebecca Simpson, who designed and built an arcade game that encourages youngsters to revise their science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects and the latter being twins, Ameeta and Aneeta Kumar, who designed an early diagnostic tool for cancer.

"Without engineers," said Prof. Brian Cox in a recent interview with Adam Parsons, "we'd be naked in a forest. But go into a school and ask who wants to be an engineer, you'll get a few kids raising their hands. Ask who wants to build a spaceship and a lot of people raise their hand."

When the realities of engineering are brought to life - whether it's talking about the founders of Google or the people who make sure Glastonbury runs without a hitch - the occupation suddenly becomes as attractive as any in show business or sport.

If someone could do for engineering what Jamie Oliver did for cooking or what Brian Cox did for physics, participation rates would most likely go through the roof. If that someone was female, even better.