Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The gender gap in engineering

Let’s be honest here; the gender problem is much more far-reaching than just engineering (fun activity: ask someone to draw a picture of what they think a teacher, nurse or firefighter looks like). In fact STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths) are just one small part of a much larger puzzle! You can see the gender balance of many subjects studied in the UK in Figure 1.

Figure 1 All students by subject area and sex 2015/16 (1)

In engineering, there is ongoing work to reduce this imbalance because it helps address a problem called the skills gap. For those who don’t know, the skills gap describes the difference between the skills that employers want and those that are available from people seeking work. In the UK, 44% of engineering, science and hi-tech firms reported difficulties in finding recruits with the right STEM skills (2). 44% is huge! That is a massive amount of lost productivity for the UK. It makes sense to target underrepresented groups to fill this gap.

The gender problem in engineering is basically a two-fold one:
  • Not many females study STEM subjects
  • Those that do tend to leave their subject field (something called the “leaky pipeline” – more on that later)
The reasons for this are complex, but ultimately it has NOTHING TO DO WITH ABILITY! If you are reading this and you are a non-male STEM student considering leaving your field of study because you aren’t “good enough” that is society getting in your head and telling you so. Statistically, you’re probably better performing than your fellow male students (3), and statistically you don’t exaggerate your achievements nearly as much (4)

Cool examples of scientists in ancient history:

There are many examples of women pursuing STEM in ancient history.

Héloise - a nun and the most praised physician in Western Europe. She was fluent in several languages, an outstanding mathematician and a fierce feminist claiming that marriage is the ultimate form of prostitution (a dangerous claim in 10th century France) (5).

Theano I and Theano II - two ancient Greek natural philosophers living centuries apart, were both disciples of Pythagoras. Theano I was said to be a friend of Pythagoras, and his first female student. She paved the way for all other women of the Pythagorean School (6).

James Barry (born Margaret Ann Bulkley) lived a celebrated life. He graduated from University of Edinburgh Medical School, and quickly ascended ranks in the British Army from Hospital Assistant to Inspector General. Upon his death in 1865, it was discovered that James Barry was born a female. Investigations into his life uncovered documents forged by his mother and her lawyer to enrol him at university. Ever since this discovery, there has been debate as to whether he identified as male, female, intersex, or transgender (7) (8).

The middle ages saw the rise of the first universities, which excluded women. Convents became important places of female education. Oxford University only began accepting women into education 140 years ago – but it was into “women’s only” colleges, and these students could only study specific subjects. Male colleges at Oxford only began accepting women in 1974, which meant women were finally able to study more fully.

Today Oxford University is very gender inclusive – this story highlights how cultural change takes generations. 

So, if it’s not ability, what is it?

Essentially, all of today’s bias is a hangover from when women were expressly forbidden from studying science. The numbers of women in STEM jobs are changing very slowly, because true change takes time.

Even though 40% of girls, who chose physics at A-Level, rated physics as their favourite subject to study at GCSE (9), there are many reasons why females continue opt out of STEM. This is the leaky pipeline – enjoyment of a subject isn’t enough to keep females in STEM.

There are many reasons why a female may choose to opt out of STEM, such as: 
  • Peer Pressure
  • Lack of visible role models 
  • Lack of encouragement–Teachers ranked perceived difficulty as the highest factor that discouraged take-up of science, followed by negative subject image (9).
  • Active discouragement
  • Not seeing that the subject is for “people like them” / not identifying with the subject.

This pattern of discouraging females in STEM leads to behaviour called the ‘Leaky Pipeline’. At each stage in one’s career, women tend to opt out of STEM. Figure 2 shows data taken from Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) campaign’s 2015 report into the statistics of women in STEM at different points in their careers. It shows that at GCSE, the split roughly equal. You’d expect that, as science is mandatory at this stage. A-Level shows a small decline.

Figure 2 Percentage of females and males in different parts of their careers. Statistics taken from the WISE campaign (10)

As soon as a person enters an apprenticeship, the completion rate of females has dropped to below 10% - this is shockingly low.

Yet, when you look at degree level, a rise to nearly 50% is seen. This rise is because the results are skewed – the vast majority of medicine, health and veterinary sciences are dominated by women at this stage, and the vast majority of architecture, engineering and computer sciences are dominated by men. So, although the data shows roughly 50% split at this stage, the imbalance is still there. 

To see the imbalance of gender across different STEM subjects at degree stage, see Figure 3.

Figure 3  Imbalance of gender at degree stage (10)

Returning to Figure 2, when people enter a workforce, the statistics suddenly drop and hover just over 10%. Again, the health sector is dominated by females, and other sectors (IT, Engineering, etc.) are dominated by males. Only 8.8% of STEM business are owned by women.

The WISE campaign has also summarised results from Cranfield University, looking at women represented at board level within the FTSE 100 (Financial Times Stock Exchange top 100 companies). At this stage, the statistics don’t get any friendlier, hovering between the 20-30% level. Further analysis shows that all FTSE 100 companies now have at least 1 female director on their board, 56% of non-STEM companies have hired more than 2 women on their boards, whereas only 39% of STEM companies have achieved that. Within the FTSE 100 there are only 24 female executive directors, only 2 of which are in STEM companies (11). In 2011, Lord Davies commissioned a report that urged companies to hire at least 25% of their board from the female talent pool (I’m not a fan of positive discrimination, but there you go). Since then, female directorships have grown from 15% of the FTSE 100 to 23.5%. So, although female board members are on the rise, this is seen mostly in non-STEM companies. Although the statistics are improving, the culture might still be stagnant.

So, there you have it: if the workplace culture wasn’t one that benefited men, the leaky pipeline wouldn’t exist.

How can STEM work and research places be more gender inclusive?

Here’s a fun fact! Do you think people who discourage women from studying and working in STEM identify as sexist? Of course not! Often people who do this aren’t even aware of what they’re doing. It’s a thing called “unconscious bias”, and we all do it.

The human brain is great at making very quick decisions based on very limited data. If you’re a hunter/gatherer in the wild and you see a dangerous animal this instinct can save your life: you know to run away before the situation has fully registered in your mind. However, in today’s world these unconscious decisions can be a right pain for us!

Because so much of the problem comes from unconscious bias (here’s a fun link to find out what unconscious biases you, fellow reader, carry with you: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html (12)), it can sometimes be difficult for a workplace to understand the problems that women face in engineering. Often obstacles are not put in place on purpose and do not register on the radar across the organization, but they are still there. So how can we combat them?

Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) (13) is a charter established for this very purpose. The charter contains 10 points (14), which a workplace must agree to, to proceed. These include: acknowledging that women are underrepresented for biased reasons; acknowledging that academia and R&D cannot reach its full potential until underrepresented groups are treated fairly; committing to advancement of women’s careers, tackling the gender pay gap, etc. There’s a lot in there! But the truly great thing about Athena SWAN is that an employer doesn’t have to dissect the problem in its infinite detail to be able to do something about it.

Athena SWAN provides a framework to implement change. Athena SWAN does not tell work places to “just hire more women, then”. Positive discrimination is just as harmful as negative discrimination (if I found out that I was hired because I’m a woman, I would leave and find a job where my skills are valued more than my gender). There are some very easy ways a workplace can become more gender equal:
  • Name blind recruitment – Many studies show that obviously male names are generally more successful and are offered more money. Removing the name from the shortlisting stage removes some of the bias built into the recruitment system. Obviously, when you move onto the interview stage, then you learn a person’s gender, but a name blind shortlisting stage still helps. 
  • Job advert wording – Men and women self-filter in different ways. Being mindful of the wording on an advert (e.g. not using any gendered pronouns) helps widen the job market. 
  • Job formally advertised – Word-of-mouth is not an acceptable way to recruit. An internal job vacancy should be advertised the same way as an external job vacancy. This ensures that everyone has the information available to decide if they want to apply or not. 
  • Absolutely NO positive discrimination either – This is just as bad. Cultural change doesn’t happen miraculously overnight by suddenly recruiting exactly 50% female employees. 
  • Unconscious bias training – Making your employees aware of the accidental and unconscious ways that they support one group over another is an important step forwards 
  • Progression data – Actively monitor gender progression and use this to benchmark the business’ progress.

Who benefits from a gender inclusive work place?

Athena SWAN is great because the kinds of activities it promotes also benefit other underrepresented groups (e.g. racial minorities, other genders, etc.). To recap, who benefits from the Athena SWAN charter at work?
  • Female employees. Women are more able to progress their careers, are paid an equal wage for their work, and can finally get a fair share. 
  • Male employees. Too many times have men fallen victim to the system. A charter like this one breaks down gender stereotypes. Men are no longer forced to be the ‘breadwinner’ and spend time away from their families, to provide for them. Both parents have the opportunity take an equal role in earning the bread, and raising the children. 
  • Other gendered employees. A lot of the problems that are faced by women in STEM are also faced by the trans/gender fluid community in STEM. 
  • Other minority groups. The types of activities that Athena SWAN promotes benefit other minority groups. E.g. name blind recruitment also reduces the chance of someone with a “foreign sounding name” from being discriminated against. 
  • Employers. With more minority groups encouraged into STEM subjects, there is a larger talent pool to choose from when recruiting. Many studies show that companies with diverse teams financially outperform those with less diversity. 
  • The wider economy. A larger talent pool to choose from creates more productivity within the economy. 
  • Everyone. Everyone is a winner when their work place becomes more equal!

How else can we make society more gender inclusive?

To make society as a whole more equal is a huuuge problem! A massive cultural change like this will take a long, long time. 

Ways that a society can become more equal include changing the way women are portrayed in the media (16). Sometimes an advertising campaign will increase the appeal of a product to the detriment of, or without regard to, the women that are portrayed. 

Public advertisements are carefully performed poses, in the style of being natural (17). It seems obvious, and I shouldn’t even need to point it out – adverts aren’t real. They are exaggerations based on a simplified approximation of life. And yet they shape our reality, by providing role models. Advertising also really sells a product, so it’s not going to go away, but by being mindful within the media business, we can really make a difference.

Figure 4 made the rounds on my Facebook news feed a few months ago, and I thought I’d dig it out to show the stark contrast in the messages that different genders get. The magazine on the left encourages girls to be pretty, and the magazine on the right encourages boys to think about their career. It’s worth pointing out that these magazines are not published or written by the same company. They are not affiliated with each other in any way.

Figure 4: Two magazines with different messages for girls and boys (18)

Graphic Designer Katherine Young created a revised version of the magazine cover, shown in Figure 5 (19). This newly designed cover is way more mindful of the messages that the audience receives. The contrast of the two role models on the front is stark. See how many differences you can spot.

Figure 5  Girls life magazine cover, redesigned to be mindful of the messages that the audience receives (19)

Another way that society can become more equal is at school. Although gendered stereotypes begin reinforcement much earlier than school age, there is plenty of literature available on how schools can become unbiased, thus tackling the problem early on.

A good example is the Institute of Physics Opening Doors Guide (20). The goal of this guide is to encourage progression from GCSE to A-Level into 6 subjects that typically see a lot of gender inequality: English, mathematics, biology, physics, economics, and psychology. 

Figure 6 shows data from 921 female students in years 9, 10 and 11 (20). It shows a worrying trend of girls and boys being steered towards certain subject choices. 54.4% of those asked said they didn’t know if their school challenges old-fashioned gender stereotypes. This could mean that their schools aren’t challenging these issues on any level. That is a phenomenal and worrying statistic.

Figure 6 Data from IOP's Improving Gender Balance student survey (20)

The guide identified some good practices that schools could use to promote gender equality:
  1. Appoint a Senior Gender Champion - A person in the senior management in the school whose role is to unify the whole school with a coherent campaign to challenge gender stereotypes.
  2. Gender awareness & unconscious bias training - Staff receive training on everyday sexism that they may mistakenly and accidentally be encouraging.
  3. Sexist language training - Sexist language in schools is just as unacceptable as racist and homophobic language.
  4. Actively use progression data - Gender data on subject progression is collected across the school to benchmark the school's progress over the years of improvement.
  5. Initiatives such as external visits - Carefully planned external visits encourage students to challenge stereotypical views.
  6. Subject equity - A strict policy that all subjects are presented equally in terms of difficulty. The emphasis is on working hard, rather that studying a subject that a student has an innate talent with.
  7. Careers guidance - Students are made aware of the many career possibilities that a subject can lead to.
  8. Student ownership - Students are made aware of gendered issues and are encouraged to talk about it to generate new ideas to combat the problem.
  9. Personal, Social, Health, Economic (PSHE) - is valuable time to talk about gender equality and diversity with the students. 
Schools that follow this guide will be at the forefront of  several years of research into this area (9) (21) (22) (23) (24). 


Gender bias is everywhere, including in most people’s subconscious minds. It has nothing to do with ability, and everything do with cultural bias. 

It is a big deal when a business makes a commitment to Athena SWAN. Progress has been slow, but committing to change is helpful and important. Today, real cultural change is happening in the world. 

I hope you, reader, have enjoyed reading about my musings on the subject. Female encouragement in STEM is a tiny part of a much larger puzzle – but it’s a good place to start!

Finally, there is a lot of subject matter available online, and I have put a lot of effort into making these references relevant and interesting. Please have a look at them for more information! 


1. Higher Education Statistics Agency. HESA. [Online] 31 12 2016. [Cited: 14 February 2017.] https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/courses.
2. EngineerinUK. http://www.engineeringuk.com. [Online] 2016. [Cited: 10 February 2017.] http://www.engineeringuk.com/media/1309/engineeringuk-report-2016-synopsis.pdf.
3. Fairfield, Hanna and McLean, Alan. New York Times. [Online] 2012. [Cited: 10 February 2017.] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/02/04/science/girls-lead-in-science-exam-but-not-in-the-united-states.html?src=dayp&_r=0.
4. Logue, Josh. Overrated Men. [Online] Inside Higher Ed, 12 February 2016. [Cited: 17 March 2017.] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/12/study-finds-bias-how-male-students-view-female-stem-students.
5. Bell, John, et al. No 1548 Peroxide Comes Clean. New Scientist. 19 February 1987, p. 22.
6. Theano (philosopher). [Online] Wikipedia, 20 December 2016. [Cited: 16 February 2017.] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theano_(philosopher).
7. Shouman, Waheed. slidehare. [Online] Zagazit University, Egypt, 28 November 2013. [Cited: 14 February 2017.] http://www.slideshare.net/shouman66/women-fingerprints-in-medicine-landmark-women-in-history-of-medicine.
8. James Barry (surgeon). [Online] wikipedia, 03 February 2017. [Cited: 15 February 2017.] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Barry_(surgeon).
9. Institute of Physics. Girls in the Physics Classroom. [Online] June 2006. [Cited: 17 March 2017.] http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/review/file_41599.pdf.
10. WISE. Wise. Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: The Talent Pipeline from Classroom to Boardroom UK statistic 2014. [Online] WISE, July 2015. [Cited: 24 March 2017.] https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/uploads/wise/files/WISE_UK_Statistics_2014.pdf.

11. Cranfield University. LEADERSThe Female FTSE Board Report 2015 Putting the UK Progress into a Global PerspectiveProfessor. Cranfield.ac.uk. [Online] Cranfield Univeristy School of Management, 2015. [Cited: 24 March 2017.] http://www.som.cranfield.ac.uk/som/dinamic-content/research/ftse/FemaleFTSEReportMarch2015.pdf.
12. Harvard University. Project Implicit. [Online] Harvard University, 2011. [Cited: 14 March 2017.] https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.
13. Equality Challenge Unit. Atena SWAN Charter. [Online] 2017. [Cited: 17 March 2017.] http://www.ecu.ac.uk/equality-charters/athena-swan/.
14. —. About ECU's Athena SWAN Charter. [Online] Equality Challenge Unit, May 2015. [Cited: 14 March 2017.] http://www.ecu.ac.uk/equality-charters/athena-swan/about-athena-swan/.
15. Exploitation of women in mass media. [Online] Wikipedia, 16 March 2017. [Cited: 17 March 2017.] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exploitation_of_women_in_mass_media.
16. Goffman, Erving. Conclusion. Gender Advertisments. New York : Harper & Row Publishers, 1979, p. 84.
17. Keats-Jaskoll, Shoshanna. Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll. [Online] Facebook, 1 September 2016. [Cited: 17 March 2017.] https://www.facebook.com/shoshannakeatsjaskoll/posts/10153789809055918.
18. Mumford, Tracy. Girls' Life vs. Boys' Life? Magazine covers spark an uproar. [Online] MPR News, 23 September 2016. [Cited: 17 March 2017.] https://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/09/23/books-girls-life-vs-boys-life-magazine-comparison.
19. Institute of Physics. Opening Doors. [Online] October 2015. [Cited: 14 March 2017.] https://www.iop.org/publications/iop/2015/file_66429.pdf.
20. Daly, Angie, et al. Girls in Physics: Action Research. [Online] April 2009. [Cited: 17 March 2017.] http://www.if.ufrj.br/~tgrappoport/WIP/Guia_IOP_meninas_em_fisica.pdf.
21. Kantaria, Priya and Physics, Institute of. It's different for girls: This influence of schools. [Online] October 2012. [Cited: 17 March 2017.] http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/file_58196.pdf.
22. Institute of Physics. Closing Doors: Exploring gender and subject choice in schools. [Online] December 2013. [Cited: 17 March 2017.] http://www.iop.org/publications/iop/2013/closingdoors/.
23. —. Improving Gender Balance. [Online] 2017. [Cited: 17 March 2017.] https://www.iop.org/publications/iop/2015/file_66429.pdf.
24. UK Atomic Energy Authority. Careers at CCFE. [Online] UK Atomic Energy Authority. [Cited: 17 March 2017.] http://www.ccfe.ac.uk/Careers.aspx.

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