Giving women a sporting chance to take up engineering

Sue Sljivic, co-founder of environmental consultancy RSK.

To encourage girls into engineering careers, it’s what happens outside the classroom that matters, says Sue Sljivic.

On a recent episode of Desert Island Discs, the engineer and nuclear scientist Dr Dame Sue Ion was asked why so few engineers in the UK are female. Her answer was that the failure stems back to the lack of girls choosing to study A-level physics, which is essential for a career in engineering. The way physics is currently taught, she said, appeals more to boys than girls.

Certainly teaching physics in a way that links it to the development of real world technologies benefits all pupils, but particularly girls who, since they are currently in a minority, have to swim against the tide to study physics. The reputation of the subject for being abstract, dry and irrelevant can put pupils off. But a focus on the classroom not being ‘girl-friendly’ can miss the point.  The European Commission recently tried to promote science among young women recently with an ill-advised video ‘Science- It’s a girl thing’ that looked more like a fashion shoot than a career, with young women swaying as if they were on a catwalk and staring at good-looking man in a lab coat and nerdy glasses.

Rather than go down a blind alley of trying to make science ‘feminine’ we need to equip girls with the confidence and ambition to override negative gender stereotyping. Confident and ambitious girls will make a positive choice in favour of science. It’s building up the confidence of girls that we should concentrate on, and making the choice of a science career normal. 

My experience as one of the founding directors of a service company in the environment and engineering field is largely with women from the stage when they are actually interviewing for a job. By then, much of the gender bias inherent in our society is so ingrained that the problem can be hard to address. Many men expect to walk into an engineering job and feel entitled to it, and a disproportionate number of women don’t.

We must put all of our efforts into increasing the number of girls who are willing to study STEM subjects beyond the age of 16. Despite the fact that 16-year-old boys and girls perform equally well at GCSE physics, only 20% of those studying A-level physics are girls. But it will be too late if we wait until girls are making their A-level choices to tackle the problem.

These culturally entrenched attitudes towards achievement and aspiration need to be addressed early on at school level. There are two big changes that schools could make right now which would, I believe, have a big impact on the number of women engineers in Britain.  

The first is easiest to fix. Schools should buy in high quality external careers advice from the early teenage years. Much of the careers advice in UK schools is currently provided by an existing member of staff who, with the best will in the world, may not have the appropriate training to spot girls with aptitude for science who may otherwise drop out, and explain their career options to them fully. 

Even more importantly, we must recognise the importance of competitive sport in building girls’ confidence from an early age. Many schools have teams composed only of the girls who show natural athletic aptitude, but the benefits of participating in team sports go far beyond the physical and are essential to addressing the problem of encouraging girls into STEM careers. 

I gained enormously from team sports and competitive athletics, from an early age, particularly as part of the first women’s rugby team at my university. I’m certain that this helped me with the challenging of setting up and establishing my own company in a male-dominated STEM industry.

In Fire With Fire, Naomi Wolf argues that: “Boys learn, through sports, that you can win, they learn what winning feels like. The leaders of sports teams may be resented at first for being picked for the position, but if they lead their team to victory the whole team shares in the triumph. This experience teaches boys to root for leaders who can bring benefits to the whole group, and to identify with the strengths of those who lead wisely … Girls who do not play sports … learn that leadership is subjective, shaky, undeserved and personal”.

In the UK the situation is worse than other comparable countries. According to EngineeringUK, just nine per cent of engineering professionals in the UK are women compared to 18 per cent in Spain, 26 per cent in Sweden and 20 per cent in Italy. And by some measures we are going backwards.  Five per cent fewer women graduated from a UK university with a STEM degree in 2015 than 2014.

The current gender divide will have negative consequences for a generation of women. Last month the World Economic Forum warned that the failure to attract enough girls into STEM subjects means that they will be lose out in the economy of the future. Women will be disproportionately affected since so few work in the science and technology fields that will expand. 

Despite a blizzard of initiatives and good intentions, we have made little progress in opening up science and engineering to women. Perhaps it’s time that schools thought laterally and spent as much time building up young women’s confidence through careers advice and the sports field as they do thinking about how to make science ‘girl-friendly’. Pink Lego isn’t the answer. 

Sue Sljivic is the co-founding director of international environmental consultancy RSK.