Why we have to stop trying to ‘girlify’ engineering

Why we have to stop trying to ‘girlify’ engineering


One way to interest young women in engineering is to emphhsise the enviormental aspect.

The debate around getting more girls interested in engineering careers is usually presented as a marketing problem for a profession that is seen by some as overly masculine, boring and a bit nerdy.

"We have to stop treating engineering like a hated vegetable, to be snuck in under a thick coating of sickly sauce, and talk to girls about engineering honestly and in a way that they conveys how relevant and exciting it actually is that they can really engage with."

We’re told that encouraging girls to enjoy STEM education at school or to think about studying related subjects later on requires copying the tactics of marketing successfully aimed at them already. So what we see is a preponderance of pink, the science of lipstick, an emphasis on a marketer’s idea of ‘femininity’, in short, the girlification of engineering.

But, according to the new Talent 2030 Dashboard which NCUB publishes to monitor the levels of women studying engineering related subjects at all levels of education, the proportion of women on physics A-levels courses has barely changed in over a decade and bumps along at around 20%, we’ve improved the proportion studying it at GCSE but this isn’t converting into improvements higher up the chain. Only 14% of undergraduate engineering and technology students are women, so something about the way that engineering is being talked about is pushing women away.

Clearly the solution isn’t to dress it in pastels and pretend it doesn’t involve maths, and NCUB research shows that young women don’t have an innate dislike for engineering because when you emphasise the creative, people-based problem-solving, and environmental, aspects of engineering that they start to see the appeal.

We have to stop treating engineering like a hated vegetable, to be snuck in under a thick coating of sickly sauce, and talk to girls about engineering honestly and in a way that they conveys how relevant and exciting it actually is that they can really engage with.

When girls are presented with real women who are engineers, like the Talent 2030 ‘heroes’, they can see that engineering doesn’t need to be dressed up to be interesting and that engineers are normal men and women who they can relate too.

That’s why NCUB is running the National Engineering Competition for Girls for its second year. The competition asks girls to find solutions to problems that they themselves identify and that matter to them. Last year that meant we saw projects tackling the need for clean fresh water, using smartphone technology to translate sign-language, a design for a power plant combining multiple renewable technologies, and an overview of how new materials could solve everyday problems.

"A neuroscientist recently argued that stereotypes around science, and they way that girls are raised, created their dislike for the subject rather than any part of their nature."

The competition comes complete with classroom resources for teachers to use during lessons or in after-school clubs and prizes that include cash for the winner and their school, trips to the Big Bang Fair and mentoring from engineering professionals.

A neuroscientist recently argued that stereotypes around science, and they way that girls are raised, created their dislike for the subject rather than any part of their nature.

As a chartered engineer myself I know that engineering isn’t inherently uninteresting to girls, that they encounter it, engage with it, and talk about it every day but because of its image problem they sometimes they don’t recognise that what they’re interested in is engineering. The last way we should be talking to them about it is by patronising them with fluff.

NCUB has an ambition to double the proportion of women on engineering courses by 2030, and the government have recently announced the same ambition, but we know that the challenge isn’t solely one for universities and that it starts much earlier in their education.

Olivia Jones is Project Manager: Talent, Enterprise, Development at NCUB. 

Talent 2030 is an ambitious campaign to encourage more talented young people to pursue careers in manufacturing and engineering – including software development. Talent 2030 is particularly focused on inspiring more girls to consider careers in these sectors, working jointly with business and universities to undertake outreach into schools and colleges. For further Talent 2030 updates follow them on Twitter @Talent_2030.

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Other posts that may interest you:

Bringing universities together to boost recruitment of female engineering students
We must challenge the incorrect views of the opportunities a career in Engineering offers
We need people of every background to look to engineering as a career choice

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