Engineers need to inspire to engage the next generation

Despite a host of initiatives, there are still not enough young women taking core STEM subjects at A-level. Richard Robinson considers what can be done. 

Engineers are renowned for their innovation and problem-solving skills. Yet, there is one problem the industry still hasn’t cracked - how can it attract more female engineers?

During the first world war, the UK relied on women to take up jobs in engineering and medicine and, 100 years on, more girls than boys are taking biology and chemistry at A-level, giving them the key qualifications they need to pursue a degree in medicine.  

Sadly for a career in engineering, it’s a very different story. According to the Joint Council for Qualifications, a jaw-dropping 20,000 more boys took both maths and physics (core engineering subjects) at A-level than girls in 2017.  

At AECOM, one-third of our graduates are female, which is high for the industry.  However, the low number of women entering the profession continues to be a big problem for technical industries, which recruit mainly from STEM backgrounds and currently only 6% of registered engineers and technicians are women. 

As an industry, we need to do more to make STEM subjects and technical professions more attractive to young women. This requires positive action, not positive discrimination,  to ensure a level playing field.

So why does the industry need to hire more female engineers? First, because it’s the right thing to do. Why should women be denied the many exciting opportunities the profession can provide?

Second, STEM careers are vital to the UK economy. Highly-skilled workers are essential for our growth sectors so these qualifications carry a real premium with employers. In any case, the more mixed a team - whether in terms of gender, age or background - the better it is at coming up with innovative solutions. 

Part of the problem is that many girls - as well as boys - have not had their eyes opened to the diverse opportunities that a career in engineering can offer, plus stubborn stereotypes around engineering still very much exist. 

From an early age, young people need to hear about the exciting, intellectually challenging and varied work engineers do to build a better world. Teachers are a key enabler to this. Research has shown that primary teachers’ knowledge, confidence and enthusiasm in their subjects can have a real impact on students’ attitudes and progression in STEM fields. 

The government also has a vital role to play here. By taking a lead in the diversity agenda, they can work to ensure that there are no barriers to under-represented groups progressing into STEM - at an academic - or professional level.

Finally, the best people to support aspiring engineers are those already working in the industry. It’s up to us to take the reins and inspire young women and men in becoming the next generation of engineers. We need to act as role models and become more visible and vocal in all that we do. 

AECOM’s ‘Imagineers’ schools programme is testament to this. The initiative, run by our army of employee STEM volunteers, aims to encourage school children, especially girls, to consider engineering as a future career by setting their imaginations free in solving a global challenge. 

I truly believe that there has to be increased collaboration between schools, industry and society in order to shift attitudes and ensure that young people are able to carve their own paths in the STEM subjects and beyond.

Richard Robinson is chief executive, civil infrastructure, Europe, Middle East, India and Africa, at AECOM.