This International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) is perhaps the most important in recent years. 2018 is, of course, the Year of Engineering, during which there will be (at least) a million interactions between young people and our sector. Given the continuing gender disparity in engineering, we need to make sure more than a fair share of these interactions are targeted at girls.
The gender disparity in engineering isn't something that springs up overnight. Girls are no less capable, when it comes to STEM subjects, than boys – indeed, girls actually outperform boys in GCSE Physics. And girls are not lacking, as a group, in the skills and attributes needed to have a successful career in engineering. The problem is not one of girls' making – it is a social one and is to do with how our society perceives different types of work.
We live in a heavily gendered society, where certain behaviours are denoted 'male' and others 'female', and this is embedded within the minds of girls (and boys) from a very young age – you only need to take a walk down a toy aisle in a department store, and compare the toys targeted at children of each gender, to see. However, when it comes to reshaping our sector, lots of those 'female' attributes – creativity, teamwork, helping others – are ones which employers are going to need a lot more of in the coming years, thanks to the way the Fourth Industrial Revolution is changing what an engineer does and how they do it.
We aren't going to shift our whole culture overnight and change the gendered nature of certain behaviours and skills. However, we can in the short to medium term demonstrate to girls that the 'female' attributes they have are ones which engineering really wants them to bring to our sector. That's where the STEM Exchange comes in – this matching service, relaunched by Semta for the Year of Engineering, is bringing educators and engineering employers together, helping those educating our young people to better understand the range of careers that are open to them.
Changing our wider society's culture is something which might take a little time, but we can start today, together, to change the culture of our engineering sector. Currently, around 3% of engineering apprentices are female – there's actually been a drop since 2002 – and around 9% of our sector's workforce is female. This is poor in comparison to many other countries, but it is something we can and must change if we are serious about making the very most of all of the potential engineering talent we have available to us.
A new report by the Young Women's Trust (YWT), which Semta helped to produce, recommends a range of interventions which we can make to help to attract more girls and women into our apprenticeship programmes and into engineering roles. Changing where and how jobs and apprenticeships are advertised; changing recruitment practices, e.g. using name-blind CVs; rewriting job adverts so the wording better suits female applicants; making flexible working available to all employees and; using the 'tiebreak' provision to bring in female candidates.
These are just some of the recommendations made by the YWT, they are cost effective, and with the practical support already available in the WISE online apprenticeship toolkit, launched last year in partnership with Semta and the Institution of Civil Engineers, can be implemented immediately.
So my challenge this International Women in Engineering Day is threefold. Firstly – sign up to the STEM Exchange, if you've not done so already, and offer an opportunity to local educators so they can understand what a career in engineering has to offer the girls they teach. Secondly – read the Young Women's Trust report to think about how you could change your recruitment practices so that you are able to reach a wider talent pool. And finally – view the WISE apprenticeships toolkit in relation to the culture of your organisation, and think about the practical measures you can implement in the workplace to create a more diverse workforce.