Dr Hayaatun Sillem
Deputy CEO & Director of Strategy at the Royal Academy of Engineering

There are six times as many men as women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) roles in the UK. In fact, women only account for 14% of the workforce, not including the healthcare profession. And this figure has remained stubbornly constant over recent years.

A recent economic study that we commissioned looked at engineering on a global scale and found that the UK is lagging behind much of the world in terms of gender parity.

In fact, according to the research, the UK is ranked 58th out of the 86 countries analysed, with women making up only 22% of engineering graduates. Strikingly, it is developing countries including Myanmar and Tunisia that are leading the world in gender parity, with women making up 65% and 42% of their engineering graduate cohorts respectively.

This is despite the fact that the UK’s higher education facilities are consistently ranked among the best in the world, and that our engineers also command some of the highest salaries globally. So, why is the UK struggling to attract women into engineering and STEM more broadly?

Unfortunately, problems arise at a very early stage. At school, STEM subjects are sometimes considered ‘male’ subjects by teachers and parents, which inevitably influences girls’ subject choices and discourages many of them from pursuing careers in these fields.

If we take the example of physics, roughly equal proportions of boys (51%) and girls (49%) study the subject at GCSE but only 2% of these girls carry the subject through to A-Level.

What makes these statistics even more remarkable is that this decline occurs despite girls outperforming their male counterparts in these subjects at a GCSE level, meaning that some of the best and brightest students are being lost at this very early stage. Recent qualitative research we commissioned told us that parents, teachers, and the students themselves tend to identify students as either ‘sciencey’ or ‘artsy’ by this age, rather than being a blend of both, so once girls have left science, it can be hard to get them back.

Looking specifically at engineering, research shows that not only do women outside of the industry view the profession as a ‘male career’, but even the women within it do - associating the industry with cars, construction, and heavy machinery.

Engineering is so much more than this outdated stereotype. Engineering is about designing and delivering systems that facilitate education and healthcare, enhance quality of life, and help to eliminate global poverty. Engineers have been in the driving seat of social change for centuries - from bringing electricity to billions to helping to eradicate life-threatening disease.

I strongly believe there is a critical need to challenge these retrograde views of what engineering, and STEM more widely, entails. Here at the Royal Academy of Engineering we are tackling this head on through a new industry-supported campaign designed to communicate the excitement of modern engineering and the range of career options on offer.

The Engineering Talent Project is designed to encourage more young people, including women and other underrepresented groups, to be engineers. As part of the project we are also working with industry to improve diversity, workplace culture and employment practice so that these groups are encouraged to join, and remain, in the profession.

Throughout history engineers have played an important role in driving economic and social development, but today the UK is being held back by a lack of diversity.

Gender imbalance has a negative impact on the size of the UK’s engineering workforce, exacerbating the skills crisis. A lack of diversity also limits the dynamism and innovation in our workforce.

Engineering is a crucial driver of economic growth and human development worldwide. We urgently need to tackle outdated perceptions of engineering and work towards a profession that is diverse and inclusive of people from all parts of society. Only by doing this will we be able to meet our skills needs in the UK - and play our full part in addressing the most pressing global challenges.