Engineering, Technology and Design

Policies, role models and more work is needed to bridge the diversity gap in engineering.


Policies, role models and more work is needed to bridge the diversity gap in engineering.

Professor Helen James looks at how recent events are helping to inspire women to become engineers.

Recently we celebrated Ada Lovelace, a 19th century mathematician who is regarded as the first computer programmer.

Founded in 2009, #AdaLovelaceDay celebrates the achievements and careers of women in STEM.

A few weeks ago I was guest speaker at the New Statesmen round table discussion, Promoting diversity and plugging the skills gap: how to get more women into STEM professions.

The event focused on how to encourage more women to take up engineering subjects and professions and the ways in which policies promoting more female participation in STEM can help towards a solution to the UK’s skills shortage.

My own career started in the shipbuilding industry as a mechanical engineering apprentice. I was one of the first of three young women to be chosen by the Barrow-in-Furness shipyard as an apprentice.

I learned my trade and had the most amazing preparation for being an engineer and this training set me up to study at university. After graduation I worked as a design engineer in defence, a systems engineer in the space industry, and became a lecturer in mechanical and manufacturing engineering in further and higher education.

I don’t feel that my career path should be seen as unusual or exotic. However, years after I and my two female colleagues were given the chance to become engineering apprentices, the number of women taking-up engineering apprentices is still some way behind men.

Last month the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, together with the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, produced another thought-provoking and insightful study, Never too late: profiling female engineering apprentices.

Their study shows how there isn’t an obvious engineering apprentice type – male or female – and that when women choose engineering, they tend to do so later. Which is why getting careers guidance right in our schools and colleges is so important. It offers a clear set of targeted recommendations on how engineering can reach out to all potential engineers through an understanding of their drivers and ambitions.

In recent years the engineering community has made a concerted effort to broaden its appeal beyond traditional archetypes. If engineering is to be more representative of society, attracting more women to become engineers is vital.

Our new School of Engineering, Technology and Design aims to open-up these amazing subjects and the career opportunities they offer to women, and men, who thought that Engineering was never going to be an option for them. And maybe, in years to come female engineers will be so commonplace that no-one even thinks about their gender, just the ability and talent of each individual.

Professor Helen James is Senior Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education, Enhancement and Student Experience). She wrote the foreward for the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and Gatsby Charitable Foundation report, Never too late: profiling female engineering apprentices.

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