Women in Tech

Questioning ‘common knowledge’: the gender gap

1st August 2022
Sam Holland

It is considered common knowledge that there are many more male engineers than there are female members of the industry. As Electronic Specifier’s Sam Holland considers, the points that are less understood, however, are how the ratios of female-to-male employees fare in other STEM-friendly industries – and the reasons why engineering has one of the widest gender gaps of them all.

This article originally appeared in the July '22 magazine issue of Electronic Specifier Design – see ES's Magazine Archives for more featured publications.

While it is clear that statistics can be arbitrary and misleading, it is important that the said ‘common knowledge’ – namely that there are far more male engineers than their female equivalents – can be quantified. This brings me to the question of what people may mean when considering something to this effect:

‘There are not enough female engineers – but there are so many who are men.

This is certainly a valid concern, but again, it needs to be quantified before a criteria can be established to define such an issue. To provide more specificity to the above emboldened terms – ‘not enough’, and ‘so many’ – I’ll now quote from Engineering UK’s recent news report: “New research … has shown that 16.5% [emphasis added] of those working in engineering are female, compared to 10.5% as reported in 2010.”

This draws on some key points: there is, at least, some rather encouraging news that – from the last decade to this decade – 2022 has seen the female engineering workforce increase by over 6%. But we are nevertheless left with the far less encouraging claim of there being ‘not enough’ (16.5%) women in engineering in contrast to the ‘so many’ (83.5%) men in the industry.

The problem is, as with so many statistical arguments, that all of this information may be arbitrary without first asking the definitive questions. I believe that such questions, in this case, are as follows:

  • How do other industries fare when you consider the ratio of men to women who are working in them?
  • What factors have determined such a stark gender disparity in engineering, and to what extent (if any) can those factors inform the reason for an over 6% increase in the female engineering workforce over the last decade?
  • Having considered the above two questions, are there even enough UK engineers – regardless of their gender – in the first place?

To approach the first question, I chose a professional field that, like engineering, calls for a strong understanding of any combination of the qualities that fall under STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics): the medical industry. To my surprise, a search online led to Statista’s figures that show, in mid-2020 (when there were 300,000 registered UK doctors) the female-to-male ratio of those medical professionals was 36:64.

While that is far from a 50/50 split, it is certainly promising as it is close to a relatively well-balanced 40/60 divide. Plus, doing a search for another undersubscribed industry, namely education, leads to the reverse effect: female teachers heavily outnumber their male counterparts at approximately 76:24.

Again, this is encouraging, but it still highlights just how large the gender gap is in engineering. And this begs my second question introduced above: what factors have determined such astark gender disparity in engineering? The gender statistics of the medical and education industries reflect that female interest in three out of the four entries in the field of STEM are thankfully in no short supply. But engineering remains the sticking point.

There are of course an impossible number of factors that have made this gender gap a reality, but I reiterate my view that ultimately women are perfectly interested in gaining skill sets relevant to engineering. The problem, instead, may be down to the UK’s perception of engineering itself. As Engineer Diane Boon writes in the IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology): “It’s not that women don’t think they can be engineers … Perception of ability isn’t the problem. Perception of engineering as a desirable career, however, is certainly in play.”

Nevertheless, the gradual closing of the engineering gender gap suggests that the appeal of the industry is increasing with time: as covered earlier, there has been a 6% increase in female engineers since 2010, and there certainly isn’t a shortage of the female STEM talent that may well continue to close the gender gap further still. Again, there are an impossible number of factors that cause the ebb and flow found in any statistics, but I don’t find this 6% statistic an arbitrary one: I largely put it down to an increase (for both women and men alike) in the long-awaited acceptance of engineering as an attractive career prospect in the UK.

At the time of writing, Women in Engineering Day took place just six days ago, at which time it was a joy at Electronic Specifier to see the boom of both in-house and contributed 'Women in Tech' stories of women’s engineering accomplishments. This celebration of the industry is of course helping, but I’m now going to consider the gender gap a secondary problem.

So, what about the skills gap itself? Earlier I asked my third and final question: ‘Are there even enough UK engineers – regardless of their gender – in the first place?’ This has a far less ambiguous answer: engineering is vital to the point that we may never have enough engineers – regardless of whether they’re male or female.

This brings me back to the earlier statement of ‘common knowledge’:

‘There are not enough female engineers – but there are so many who are men.’

My answer to both my final question, and this above statement, is presented with my own statement:

‘There are not enough engineers – but there are so many men and women who are both interested in having, and already equipped with, all the right STEM talents to close that engineering skills gap.’

As an editor of this engineering publication, I receive plenty of engineering news stories every day that show how exciting the industry really is. I think that continuing to publicly celebrate and promote industry accomplishments is vital to closing both the gender gap and the very skills gap itself.

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