The case for change: why engineering needs more women

business collageDespite a growing global demand for engineers, four in ten women leave the profession. What can be done to close the gender gap?

With an ever-growing demand for engineers across the world, Dr Alana Collis hopes the future Brunels could be female. Photograph: Alamy

In Britain, as across the world, there is an insatiable demand for engineers. In the UK alone, applications to study the subject at university have grown by a quarter over the past decade.

In the case of chemical engineering, numbers have almost trebled as nations and organisations look for answers to global issues such as climate change, renewable energy, water supply and health challenges including rising obesity.

But despite engineers being renowned for their innovation, ingenuity and problem-solving skills, the profession still has to overcome its long-standing challenge of attracting and retaining female engineers.

The numbers illustrate the scale of the problem. Analysis published this month found that just 8% of professional engineers are female, compared to 51% of the UK population and only one in six engineering undergraduates are women. In the United States, fewer than one in five engineering graduates are female.


Few professions can sustain this imbalance and the large scale loss of talent. Thankfully, it’s an issue now beginning to be looked at by a UK parliamentary select committee and leading figures and organisations in the sector.

Richard Boocock, vice president of global operations at Air Products, has called for a complete overhaul of the way engineering is addresses gender diversity. “Women’s voices are essential to the problem-solving and innovation that is at the heart of engineering,” he says. “We need to do more, as both a society and an industry, to encourage girls to engage in maths and science in school, to support women pursuing engineering degrees in university, and to provide women with opportunities to thrive in our workplaces. We must re-imagine what an engineer and a leader looks like so that we can tap into this critical half of the human talent pool.”

Late last year the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) launched a five year strategy, Chemical Engineering Matters, which recognised the need for a more diverse profession and to break the long-standing stereotypical image of engineering.

Reasons for leaving the profession

In 2011, a survey of 5,500 women with engineering degrees in the US found that four in 10 either did not pursue an engineering career after graduation, or had left the profession completely.

The UK engineering firm Atkins recently surveyed 300 female engineers, 79% of whom said their colleagues and employers played an important role in helping them fit their career alongside family life and personal interests.

The research also showed how rewarding a career in engineering can be and highlighted what needs to be done to improve the number of female engineers. It found:

• 98% of female engineers found their job rewarding.

• 91% cited an inspirational teacher as a reason for choosing an engineering related career.

• 75% were interested in problem-solving and fixing things from an early age.

• Seven in eight believe greater awareness of what engineers do is required.

Intervention and retention

Whether male or female, evidence also suggests that a lack of flexible or part-time work is a significant factor behindengineers leaving their profession.

It is often the case that part-time hours do not equate to proportionately less work and individuals may face increased time pressure. The activities that are omitted to keep on top of workloads include the formal and informal networking that is often part of career progression and feeling integrated into a professional community.

Research published in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour, Stemming the tide: Predicting women engineers’ intentions to leave, has taken a closer look at some of these issues and made early attempts to predict behaviour patterns which lead to women exiting the profession early.

Using a sample of over 2,000 female engineers, the research used aspects of ‘social cognitive career theory’, why people choose their career, and ‘turnover theory’, which asks why people leave their jobs or career. The results showed some close relationships between the two theories and may help to explain why so many women fail to enter and leave the profession.


The theories suggest that female engineers need to feel confident that the rewards are there if they perform well in a male-dominated profession. As soon as this confidence breaks down, job satisfaction falls and commitment to their employer reduces. Once this happens, ‘turnover theory’ predicts there is an increased risk of a woman leaving engineering.

One fundamental point highlighted by the research is the crucial role of training, development and support. Development is not just about making sure female engineers are performing well in their role, but helping them to manage multiple work-life roles and the political landscape of a male-dominated workplace.

It is clear that HR strategies for the recruitment and retention of female engineers need to become more sophisticated if the profession is to become more diverse. The good news is that the loss of so many female engineers from the profession could be preventable.

Dr Alana Collis is equality and diversity policy lead at the Institution of Chemical Engineers.

image © yanlev –

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