Women engineers still face many barriers

Women in engineering: a female engineer holding a gear in front of her face
Minority report: fewer than 10 per cent of engineers in the UK are women Credit: Alamy

Women Engineering Society CEO Kirsten Bodley talks about the new initiatives aiming to reduce barriers and bring more women into engineering.

Kirsten Bodley, CEO of the Womens Engineering Society (WES)

Kirsten Bodley is interim CEO of the Women's Engineering Society (WES) and former chief executive of STEMNET. A trained chemist and former primary school teacher, she began her career at Courtaulds before becoming an R&D consultant in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries at KPMG Consulting.

If I could bottle all the enthusiasm and passion with which young women engineering apprentices talk about their jobs, I would take it into primary schools and unleash it on a reception class and upwards.

I’m very aware from my experience as a Year 6 teacher that perceptions about engineering being a career for boys can be fixed in the minds of children as young as four or five, and that many parents also have entrenched views.

It’s still shocking to me that fewer than 10 per cent of practising engineers in the UK are women – lower than any other country in Europe – but I see clear evidence that gender diversity is now being discussed at the very top of our partner organisations.

Old myths about engineers working alone and not being creative still exist and this is a major barrier for many women

My biggest frustration is seeing the fantastic opportunities that are out there for women and then being reminded how unaware so many people still are about the role that engineering plays in our society.

The fact is that engineers designed your mobile phone, they built The Shard and they’re the creators behind the electric car, and although they’re often dismissed as men in hard hats who work up to their ankles in mud, they are far more likely to design something on a computer than be out on site.

But the old perceptions and myths about engineers working alone and not being creative still exist and this is a major barrier for many women.

Our partners tell us that they want to hire more women at all points – both at graduate level and via apprenticeship schemes – but I recognise that school-leaver programmes are still seen as second best by many families and that’s a real shame.

New, employer-led apprenticeships will mean more opportunities for young people, not fewer, and with so many apprentices going on to get degrees, it doesn’t need to be an either/or choice from now on.

I passionately believe that although WES was founded a long time ago, it has just as much relevance to modern women as it did to their great-grandmothers.

There may be much more to do, but my biggest hope is that by the time we celebrate our centenary in 2019, the many fantastic initiatives aimed at challenging outdated occupational stereotypes will really have begun to bear fruit.”

Want to empower more women in engineering?

Find out about the challenges faced by female engineers and the role models inspiring them at tgr.ph/we50.

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