A bolder approach is needed to encourage more women to pursue careers in STEM
For companies throughout Europe, the scarcity of engineering professionals is becoming increasingly problematic. There are currently hundreds of thousands of engineering-based jobs all over the continent that are not being filled – with the issue even being highlighted by EU President Ursula von der Leyen.
Here, William de Laszlo, Director at Harwin, explores how the barriers faced by women can be broken down when pursuing STEM careers, and how a change of approach can help to tackle the skills shortage as well as what the engineering industry can do so lessen the gender disparity.
Things are at their most serious here in the UK. A recently published IET report estimates that at least 173,000 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) sector positions are vacant, since suitably capable candidates cannot be found. This is undoubtedly impacting severely on long-term economic growth (equating to £1.5 billion annually in lost revenues), in a country that is trying desperately to avoid slipping into recession.
There has been a shortfall in the number of people studying engineering degrees in the UK for many years – and actual demand has not been kept up. Now, several dynamics are leading to further difficulties. Our exit from the EU has limited access to engineers from nearby countries. On top of this, many experienced engineers decided to retire early after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The limited supply of engineers is resulting in cut-throat rivalry to recruit the available talent. Something has to be done to fill in the vast skills gap that has formed so that the British industry can still compete on the world stage. Yet almost all the contribution that could be offered by one-half of the population is being ignored – and that certainly is not helping matters.
Making STEM inclusive
For far too long, careers in STEM have been dominated by men, with very few women following careers in this area. There are opportunities for companies to take a proactive approach to change this now, whilst also leading the way in equipping the next generation with the skills, training, and career pathways they need to succeed. Numerous studies (from respected sources, such as Harvard University and Stanford University) have reinforced the positive impact that better gender representation can have on team dynamics in terms of better team cohesiveness and productivity.
Why are so few women entering careers in STEM?
There are various factors influencing this gender imbalance. Here are some of the most prominent:
Traditional structures upholding long-established gender stereotypes
Even in our modern and more progressive culture, there is still a bias towards STEM subjects being associated with boys instead of girls. Though this is gradually changing, gender bias is embedded from a very early age through the toys children are given to play with, advertising, social cues, parenting, and early schooling all result in an imprint that is very hard to undo.
Misconceptions about what engineering involves
Because of the structures previously mentioned, women are not often given a chance to gain a clear understanding of what a career in contemporary engineering looks like. By showing the broad range of different roles available, it helps to break down deeply manifested engineering stereotypes.
A lack of role models
American tennis player Billie Jean King recently said; "if you can see it, you can be it" when discussing women in sport, and the same applies to engineering. If young people can see women working in the industry at all levels and the benefits engineering brings to society, then the chances are that they are more likely to identify it as a viable career choice. Role models are access points and it is therefore vital that more is done to demonstrate what is possible to younger generations so that the message that women can be engineers is loud and clear.
Providing alternatives to university courses
Not everyone is academically minded. By having more practical forms of training available, such as apprenticeships that offer alternative routes into engineering careers, there is the prospect of bringing in talented individuals who might otherwise be missed.
It is now accepted that children already start making decisions about what sort of careers they want to go into during their preteens. This means it is essential to make them aware of engineering long before they start their secondary education. The organising of makers' sessions, clubs where rudimentary coding can be taught, or tech-led summer school days are just some of the routes that can be used to attain this goal.
Recognising that it is a genuine concern that has to be dealt with, Harwin is doing everything possible to lessen gender disparity in engineering. The team here has implemented a large-scale outreach programme targeting both young men and young women starting in their careers. Through this, regular visits are made to local schools, to help inspire pupils to consider pursuing STEM-based careers.
Furthermore, we have established the Harwin Academy to provide detailed initial engineering training to school leavers. This now has a relatively high proportion of women enrolling, and in the coming years, that will translate into greater numbers going through the company’s comprehensive apprenticeship scheme too. For more information visit the Harwin website.