In a week which began with the Women’s March convening in countries around the world, where over five million people protested against inequality and discrimination, it’s frustrating to see how little progress has been made in attracting more women into manufacturing and engineering. The fact is that our sector is crying out for a more balanced workforce, yet the number of women in manufacturing remains stubbornly low.
Some may question my assertion that we need more women; that surely it’s about talent not gender? Of course talent is vital, but I believe that our collective inability to attract the brightest and best women into the profession is letting manufacturing down and contributing to many of the challenges we face.
Firstly, what is the scale of the problem? In a recent article in The Engineer, Dr Hayaatun Sillem, deputy chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering, wrote, “Statistics tell us that STEM professions, and the engineering community in particular, still have a long way to go in building a more diverse culture. For example, 20 per cent of physics A-levels are awarded to girls, the Institute of Physics found in its 2011 report It’s different for girls. Fifteen per cent of engineering and technology first degrees are awarded to females. Only 8 per cent of professional engineers are female, according to Prof John Perkins’ 2013 Review of engineering skills, and only 4.6 per cent of those registered with their professional institutions are female.”
As this illustrates, the closer you get to a senior level engineering job, the less likely you are to find a woman in the post. There are myriad reasons why this might be the case, and perhaps this is part of the problem. The sheer diversity of the barriers to entry make gender inequality in manufacturing a difficult beast to wrestle; just as Hercules struggled to slay the many-headed Hydra, so we find that a multi-faceted attack is needed to tackle this intractable issue.
There is also the question of time: there is no quick fix to attracting and keeping more women in manufacturing and engineering, but long-term planning is inherently difficult in the context of a five-year election cycle. This is a challenge which requires cross-party agreement and sustained investment. With the current Government’s focus on industrial strategy and a declared commitment to long-term planning, we can only hope that a more joined-up approach is in the offing.
Listening to a radio discussion about the forthcoming release of Hidden Figures, a film based on the true story of the female mathematicians at NASA who helped to put astronaut John Glenn on the moon, it occurs to me that we can’t change the past, but we can change the future. It’s shaming and frustrating to think that these women’s stories remained untold and their contribution unrecognised for so long, but it does teach us an important lesson. Everywhere you look – if you look hard enough – you can find examples of women in manufacturing and engineering doing amazing things; things that will inspire others and reveal much about the world of possibilities which awaits anyone wanting to pursue a STEM career.
Evolution tells us that humans are innately able to make things and solve problems – how else did we become the dominant species on Earth? Therefore, arguably we are all engineers and manufacturers. Our children, both boys and girls, need to have their eyes opened and their ambitions awakened. The current pace of technological change, our ever-deeper understanding of the universe and the daily discoveries being unearthed make today even more exciting that yesterday.
In my view, it is this passion for pushing boundaries through STEM that will be the key to unlocking the door and smashing the glass ceiling for women in manufacturing. Just imagine what tomorrow could bring.