California is succeeding in an area where the UK is falling behind, and it’s not sunshine hours. Since autumn 2014 the University of California, Berkeley has enrolled equal numbers of women and men onto its engineering programmes. How? By not calling them engineering programmes.
Lena Nilsson’s recent piece in the New York Times highlighted a brand-related problem for universities; encouraging women to take up professional engineering with targeted recruitment, by emphasising graduate salaries, or offering mentoring opportunities doesn’t work. What does work is emphasising engineering as societally meaningful. According to Nilsson’s work at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, American universities with programmes aimed at reducing global poverty and inequality have no trouble attracting female applicants. M.I.T’s interdisciplinary D-Lab boats a 74% female population, while Arizona State has seen twice as many women opt for its humanitarian engineering courses as it has for its traditional programmes.
None of these humanitarian courses were designed with women in mind but perhaps that’s why they work; ‘girlifying’ engineering has repeatedly failed over the last 10 years. Despite millions of pounds in initiatives and numerous programmes run in the UK, very little has changed. Currently, women only make up 14% of engineering undergraduates, a figure that actually marks a 1.7 percentage point decrease compared with 2002.
This is why NCUB formed the Talent 2030 programme in 2012. Talent 2030 combines the National Engineering Competition for Girls with real examples of inspirational women in STEM professions and case studies of the innovative work of some of our most influential partners. Rather than treat the entrants of the competition as girls to be enticed and led quietly along into careers in engineering or manufacturing, we think of them as young people who were born to engineer. In the three competitions that we have held, the girls who enter have demonstrated time and again that what they are interested in is engineering a better world. This year alone our finalists submitted entries designing pop-up medical isolation units to help combat Ebola, a pressure-regulated shower to make assisted living more efficient, and a device with airless wheels to cheaply transport water in developing countries.
When we asked them why they wanted to be engineers, they consistently spoke of using maths and science to ‘improve the world’, of the importance of sustainable engineering, and the enjoyment they got out of ‘designing things to help people’. Yet there’s still work to be done. Despite this enthusiasm, the girls also spoke of obstacles such as being scared that their maths or science skills weren’t good enough, that their school didn’t offer the right options or help, and perhaps most sadly, because ‘my class is full of boys’.
So this year we’re raising our game. The face of Talent 2030 has changed considerably over the years to ensure we are engaging with and empowering the most promising future engineers. Now, with great support from both Rolls Royce and EDF Energy, Talent 2030 aims to be bigger and better than ever. By reaching more young women and helping them to push through those obstacles, we’re telling the world that engineering is not just for boys, it’s for girls too.