The 2018/19 National Engineering Competition for Girls featured innovative ideas. Across three age categories, winning entries focused on how to tackle the problem of decreasing energy sources, explored alternatives to plastic, and how to reuse the material in new and different ways.

While the competition is an example of the talent and creativity of young females in driving innovation in technology and engineering sectors, attracting more women to pursue careers in manufacturing and engineering remains a core challenge. At present, only 10.3% of UK’s professional engineers are women (ONS/NOMIS, 2019). As manufacturers and businesses rapidly move towards utilising new technologies and producing high-value goods and services, the demand for highly skilled STEM employees is increasing fast.

At present, only 10.3% of UK’s professional engineers are women.

Attracting more women to join the STEM workforce is essential not only to fill the gender and equality gap in the sector but to address the increasing current and future demand for a talented and highly-skilled STEM workforce. Diversity among employees in a workplace has shown to aid innovation (Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2018). Businesses and the UK economy at large will only benefit from drawing on the full talent pool of diverse and creative graduates. This includes female talent.

In 2019, the majority of Higher Education students are female and this trend is likely to continue (HESA, 2019). However, female participation in STEM subjects remains uneven. The most popular science subjects amongst females at undergraduate level in 2017/18 were subjects allied to medicine and biological sciences in which women far outweigh their male peers (80.7% females vs. 19.3% males and 63.3% females vs. 36.6% males respectively), while computer sciences and engineering & technology subjects remain male dominated with only 15.2% of female participation in both subjects (HESA, 2019)- and far off the 30% target set for female engineering & technology undergraduates on the Talent 2030 Dashboard.

The purpose of the Talent 2030 dashboard is to set out serious targets over a credible timeline which NCUB will monitor every year from 2012 to 2030.

The purpose of the Talent 2030 dashboard is to set out serious targets over a credible timeline which NCUB will monitor every year from 2012 to 2030. While the number of female engineering & technology students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels has slowly increased since 2012 (with postgraduate participation exceeding the target as of 2017, and reaching 26.1% in 2019), the percentage of computer science undergraduates in the UK that are women has been in decline since 2013 from an already low participation rate (down from 17.4% in 2013. The number slightly increased in the last year, but by a mere 0.1%). A similar yet less concerning trend can be observed for the number of medicine & dentistry undergraduates in the UK that are women. The numbers decreased from 57.6% in 2013 to 55.9% in 2017/18, but still exceeding the 50% target set for 2030 and beyond.

Higher education institutions play a key role in training and providing female STEM graduates. In order to meet the industry’s demand, more school girls need to be interested in sciences, and more women have to be enrolled in STEM subjects at undergraduate level. Making sure the female workforce can be roped in increases the talent pool for manufacturers, and contributes to meeting future skills demands in the industry and to reducing the widening skills shortage. Positive change has been alarmingly slow, demanding for more concerted action.

Industries, schools and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) together bear the responsibility of increasing female participation in STEM subjects. Better knowledge of future earnings, more emphasis on the green and sustainable side of engineering and more women role models in the industry, among others, have the potential to encourage more young women into engineering. And it is important to inform and engage young women early on, getting them interested in physics and maths at GCSE and A-Level.

At GCSE level, girls’ performance in physics is equal to that of boys, and 49% of those studying GCSE physics in 2019 were girls. And yet far less girls choose A-level physics compared to boys (Institute of Physics, 2018). Some studies (by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, OECD, and others) suggest that the gender gap in physics (and maths) arises not due to a lack of girls’ interest in or understanding of the subject, but is rather an expression of a lack of confidence amongst girls in succeeding in the subject.

Higher education institutions play a key role in training and providing female STEM graduates.

“Girls are currently less likely to progress to A-level physics than boys, even when the subject is one of their best results at GCSE. There is strong evidence that the way that pupils are navigated through their choices is influenced by gender, especially in mixed schools. A-level physics is an enabling subject and a gateway qualification to many undergraduate STEM courses. Because less [female] students do physics A-Levels, less students will do undergrad in the subject or related science subjects that require a physics foundation” (Institute of Physics, 2018). An under-representation of women in physics (22.6%) and maths (38.7%) A-level inevitably determines the under-representation of women in STEM courses at HEIs and eventually translates into fewer women professionals in engineering & technology careers (Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2018).

What is interesting to observe is the difference in engineering & technology students in the UK that are women from undergraduate to postgraduate level. While as few as 15.2% of engineering & technology undergraduates in the UK are women (up from 14.6% in 2012), the number reaches 26.1% at postgraduate level. This divergence might be due to students cutting across from science undergraduate courses other than engineering and could potentially be influenced by the high number of foreign students (EU and non-EU) pursuing postgraduate engineering & technology courses at UK institutions.

Faced with a widening skills gap and with future skills demand anticipated to be rising rapidly in STEM-related industries, the current rate of change in closing the gender gap is insufficient and more targeted action needs to be called for.

The Talent 2030 campaign runs from 2012-2030 and aims to encourage more talented young females to pursue careers in manufacturing and engineering in the UK.