By Tania Cooper MBE, Managing Director of Steel Benders UK Ltd and Chair of the North East STEM Foundation
Engineering has long been hailed as the backbone of industrial progress, propelling societies forward through innovation and technological advancements. Yet, despite the immense contributions made by engineers, the field continues to face a significant gender disparity.
On this International Women in Engineering Day, we are reminded of the pressing need for diversity in the industry. It is crucial to foster an inclusive, industry-led, STEM-based education system that addresses both the skills shortage and the significant underrepresentation of women in engineering.
As the Managing Director of Steel Benders UK Ltd and Chair of the North East STEM Foundation, I have witnessed first-hand the transformative impact of women in engineering. Over the years, I have seen numerous talented women break barriers, challenge stereotypes, and excel in this traditionally male-dominated profession. However, the journey towards achieving gender equality in engineering is far from over, as illustrated by recent reports.
The Lanes Group’s report, for instance, found that women make up only 16.5% of all engineers in the country, although this number has grown over the last few years. Furthermore, statistics show that only 19% of employees in the energy and utilities sector are female, falling below 1% when considering the craft-level workforce specifically. These figures highlight the urgent need for change and emphasise the importance of attracting more women into engineering.
In the North East of England, we are experiencing a remarkable boom in its industrial sector, fuelled by the recent designation of Teesside as the first Freeport in the Chancellor’s Spring Budget. This development promises substantial investments and economic growth for the region. However, the success of this venture hinges on the availability of a skilled and diverse workforce. Without it, the potential dividends will remain unrealised.
Recognising the importance of these issues, the North East STEM Foundation has taken on the mission of advancing the education of young people in the North East of England, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). We strive to achieve this goal by providing grants that support young individuals in attending South Durham University College, where they can gain the necessary knowledge and skills to thrive in the engineering industry.
One of the primary challenges we face is dispelling the deeply ingrained stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding engineering. Society, from a young age, often pigeonholes girls into gender-specific roles and careers, discouraging their pursuit of STEM subjects. To address this, we must actively engage with young girls and their families, showcasing the exciting opportunities that engineering offers and highlighting the successful women already making their mark in the field.
Schools and universities should prioritise initiatives that promote STEM subjects among girls, providing access to resources, mentoring programs, and hands-on experiences. Additionally, partnerships between educational institutions and industry leaders can offer internships and scholarships specifically targeting women, encouraging their participation and career progression in engineering.
By investing in STEM education, we are not only addressing the immediate skills shortage but also tackling the longstanding gender gap in engineering. It is well-established that diverse teams lead to greater innovation and success. Therefore, it is essential to encourage more women to pursue careers in engineering, providing them with equal opportunities and support to excel in the field.
The North East is on the cusp of unprecedented growth and prosperity. To ensure this momentum is sustained, it is imperative to invest in the future generation of engineers and prioritise diversity in the industry. By empowering young people, particularly women, with a robust STEM education and creating a welcoming and inclusive environment, we can build a workforce that not only meets the demands of the thriving industry but also paves the way for a more equitable and prosperous society.
However, the significance of bringing more women into engineering overall cannot be overstated. Women bring unique perspectives, skills, and experiences to the table, fostering innovation and driving creativity. Diverse teams are proven to be more successful, as they offer a broader range of viewpoints and approaches to problem-solving. By incorporating women’s talents into the engineering industry, we can unlock a wealth of untapped potential and accelerate progress.
As industry leaders and professionals, we have a responsibility to promote and champion women in engineering. By sharing success stories, organising networking events, and mentoring aspiring female engineers, we can inspire the next generation and pave the way for their success. Female role models play a crucial role in dismantling stereotypes and showcasing the diverse career paths available within engineering. Moreover, it is crucial to adopt supportive workplace environments that prioritise diversity and inclusion. Employers should implement policies that address the unique challenges faced by women in engineering, such as flexible working arrangements, mentorship programs, and family-friendly policies.
Finally, attracting more women into engineering is not only a matter of gender equality but also an imperative for the industry’s advancement. By breaking down stereotypes, providing equal educational opportunities, promoting female representation in leadership, and developing inclusive workplaces, we can tap into the immense potential women bring to engineering. Let us collectively work towards building a future where every woman feels empowered to pursue a career in engineering, shaping a more prosperous and equitable society for all.