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Where are all the female engineers? Let’s hear what one has to say.

June 5, 2024
Lukas Vanterpool

The representation of females in the engineering field has traditionally been low, but in recent years there has been a growing effort to increase diversity and inclusivity in the field.

Despite this progress, women still face significant barriers and challenges in the profession. Research has shown that women in engineering often face discrimination, bias and lack of mentorship and sponsorship. Compared to their counterparts, females often encounter a lack of role models and representation in the field which can make it less appealing to them. Despite these challenges, many women have successfully pursued careers in engineering and have made significant contributions to the field.

Recently we were fortunate enough to sit down with an inspiring female engineer, in the process of doing her degree with a global engineering company through an apprenticeship program. Let’s hear her opinion about why there are so few female engineers in the UK and how ended up breaking down stereotypes.

Young girls aren’t encouraged to follow careers in engineering  

Q: What made you decide you wanted to become an engineer? Had you always planned to go into the career at some point or was it something you came across later?

From a baby, my favourite toy was a wooden tractor and I spent most of my childhood wearing John Deere overalls. I always had an interest in how ‘stuff’ works and this was evident from as young as 8 years old. I would always rewire plugs for my parents and whenever something needed fixing in the house,  I was the first to be on the scene. I loved maths and science, however, attending an all-girls school, fields like engineering were never mentioned. Academically I always excelled in maths and science and was never creative but at 14 years old, my career advice was to become a photographer.

This highlights a common problem in many female schools, creative fields are often encouraged amongst young girls, becoming writers, teachers, and photographers, even when they have strong abilities in science-related subjects.

Luckily for me, my mother recognised my abilities and encouraged me to follow engineering by setting up a work experience. I think I was always drawn towards a career in engineering, but somehow I got sidetracked. Probably because my A-level Physics teacher was about as interesting as a paper towel and managed to suck the joy out of my favourite subject, so I ended up dropping Physics and changing to Economics, which led me away from Engineering and into a degree that I had no interest in so eventually I dropped out.

For a few years, I ended up selling cars which eventually led me to Food Manufacturing recruitment, and I instantly fell in love with the industry. I loved figuring out the technicality of the roles and my understanding exceeded most people in recruitment because I had a genuine interest in asking questions others wouldn’t. At the end of the day, recruitment still wasn’t what I was meant to be doing and after years of wishing I was doing the jobs I was recruiting for, so I gave up my job, with no job to go to and just an ambition to become an engineer. Even my close family and friends who knew how determined I was, didn’t know how I would achieve becoming an

engineer.

‘ In the UK women make up 16.5% of engineers in the force’

– Source: wes.org.

 

How she ended up with an apprenticeship with a global business

Q: You’ve decided to opt for an apprenticeship with a global business – how did that come about? What made you decide to take the apprenticeship?

Working in a recruitment role previously, I noticed the big gap between engineering graduates and candidates with engineering experience but no degree.

Speaking to so many candidates, I noticed the difference in knowledge and attitude between the graduates and the white-collar technical roles I placed was stark. I realised that engineering at university is oversubscribed and there are more graduates than there are jobs and I hadn’t come across a single recruiting client that would have taken someone with a degree over someone with experience.

I had responsibilities to consider including a mortgage to pay, so full-time education to obtain a degree just wasn’t an option. I spent months trawling the internet until I stumbled across degree apprenticeships, which I never knew existed at the time. I couldn’t believe it but my dream role came up at a great company that was commutable from home. It seemed too good to be true, but it wasn’t.

‘15% of starts in STEM apprenticeships were by females in 2020/21’ – source: educationhub.blog.gov.uk

               

The female experience in engineering 

Q: Tell us what your journey has been like so far? The good, the bad and the ugly.

My experience has been a rollercoaster. I stand out in my apprenticeship, not because of my age or my gender but because of my attitude. I’ve gotten a reputation for being over-enthusiastic and I’m often asked why I’m so excited. Something people don’t realise is what it took for me to get to where I am. I am living my dream every day.

The first year of university was a shock to my system. I hadn’t done maths for 10 years and suddenly found myself calculating the heat transfer in an adiabatic reversible process and not really understanding what was going on. I can admit that I had a chip on my shoulder – I was older than everyone else, and I just felt that they didn’t appreciate how good their situation was.

As if I didn’t have enough new circumstances to navigate, Covid hit, and 2 days into the 1st national lockdown I received the news that I was pregnant but after week 5 I got really ill with Hyperemesis Gravidarum. This meant I had to take my end-of-year exams remotely, for the large part on the bathroom floor,  while throwing up.

I had wanted to study engineering for so long, and I didn’t want to pause my studies because of my pregnancy but due to the Levy funding criteria of degree apprenticeships, to carry on studying I also had to carry on working.

To my dismay, the university spent a long time trying to stop me from doing this. They gave me three options; have 12 months out, have 12 months out or… have 12 months. According to them, what I wanted to do was not possible.  All I wanted was to have 2 months of maternity leave from both work and university and then catch up on the missed teaching before returning.

‘New research suggests that almost three quarters (73 per cent) of female engineers have experienced some form of discrimination, harassment or victimisation at work.’ source: https://www.ogrstockdenton.com/

 

Endless emails culminated in one horrendous meeting, whereby I sadly experienced discrimination like many females in the industry.  A senior member of staff called me mad, crazy and unreasonable. He implied I was asking the university to break legislation and told me it would reflect badly on the university metrics when I failed. I was told by these men how their wives couldn’t cope when they had had babies and how “you think you know what you want, but you don’t.”

The shocking thing is that this was a university that boasts equality and inclusion, like most do, yet actively and aggressively discriminated against a pregnant student. It was me against an entire department and finally, a week after my daughter was born they conceded but it very much felt like they were setting me up to fail.

I had to cram a year’s worth of assessments into a very short period of time, with 12 exams and assignments due within 6 weeks and several more in the weeks before. The impact that it had on the birth of my daughter, mental health, family life and performance had been significant and the people involved are yet to be held accountable. I’m currently going through the formal complaints process, and won’t stop until I’m confident this won’t happen to another female student at my university again.

Juggling a degree apprenticeship and a family

Q: You have a (very!) young family – how have you found juggling your apprenticeship and family life? 

I have an amazing support system. My husband left his job to support me in achieving my dream. Our daughter was in nursery a couple of days a week from a few months old primarily because it was the only way that I could legally socialise her during the pandemic. I was also mostly working from home for the best part of 2 years so I had a lot of time to adapt to motherhood.

The current company I work for has been amazing and very understanding when I need to work from home at the last minute because my little one has a fever or when I turn up to work on 3 hours of sleep because she was teething. As a company, they have bent over backwards trying to make sure that I have everything I need to balance life as a new mum and when I thanked them for it they said “we see you as a long-term investment,”. This gives me hope that things are changing in the engineering industry.

As a mother, I honestly always feel divided.  Some days I miss my daughter madly and think about her all day at work, while on other days I can’t wait to get back to the office for a bit of peace.  A steep learning curve for me has been compromising my expectations. For anyone else in a similar situation, I say to give yourself a break and ask for help if you need it. The house doesn’t always have to be spotless, frozen pizza for tea is fine, an average mark on the odd assignment is not the end of the world and skipping the gym is okay.

Why there are still so few female engineers in the UK

Q: Only 16.5 % of the UK engineering workforce is female, this has risen in the last 12 years – drawing on your experience, what is contributing to this? Previous articles point towards a number of issues such as lack of role models, sexism in the workplace and concern over progression prospects

MIT has an almost equal split of male and female students in its mechanical engineering course but this was not always the case. They found that female students are more likely to apply if there is the visibility of female faculty. Previously, they had a disproportion of men on the faculty which was addressed by proactively approaching suitable female candidates to apply.

They often found that female candidates were some of the strongest candidates so the proportion of female faculty grew and they highlighted this, writing blogs and sharing bio inserts on the female faculty members, this led to a spike in female applicants. Females needed to see themselves represented to feel like they belonged.

Having been on the other side, working in recruitment, I definitely believe the best way to increase diversity within a company is proactive recruitment. Unfortunately, recruitment is often low on a company’s priority list, and this is where companies like The Sterling Choice can really help employers to improve their diversity.

The ‘old boys club’ mentality in the field of engineering

Q: Is there a culture of sexism? We know in the food manufacturing sector there is very much an ‘old boys’ mentality – is this the reality in engineering?

Unfortunately, I found myself confronted by the ‘old boys club’ mentality numerous times. I often hear things like “I won’t say because there’s a lady present,” or have been told I only got the job because I’m a woman. Small things like, the only safety boots available in my size having pink laces and high-vis vests coming down to my knees are unfortunate reminders that sexism is alive and well in the engineering field. Women still aren’t being catered to the same way as men.

I admire the bravery of young girls who join the business straight from school. I believe the world is built for men, from the height of doors to the temperature of the air-conditioning in the office, and this is especially evident in engineering.

A lot of companies efforts to make the workplace more inclusive are very superficial and service level, they don’t reach all stakeholders and subsequently, they aren’t impactful. Some of the training that would be beneficial for everyone is only rolled out to women. Women are taught how to speak up, and how to advocate for themselves but men are not taught how to be allies. We are treating the symptoms, not the cause and until that is addressed there will be no real change.

From my experience, I find the lack of women in a department can mean that your female peers see you as competition before they see you as an ally. I faced a pretty insignificant difference of opinion with another young female engineer in her office after which she actively and openly told everyone she didn’t like me. It created an uncomfortable situation and shows the role women also have to play in allowing each other scope in the engineering field. Women shouldn’t be tearing each other down.  Women should be supporting one another. If we are bad-mouthing one another, then we don’t stand a chance of working with men.

Women hold just 9% of the top career grade positions – is this due to barriers or down to a lack of women entering the industry?

From a young age, I recall being called ‘bossy’ when similar attributes would be called ‘leadership skills’ in a boy. Women get called hysterical when men get called passionate, and it is only recently that the world is accepting confidence in women when typically, we are expected to be self-deprecating and humble. Boys are encouraged to be leaders their whole lives, to be confident and decisive and strong and women are not. You couple this with the general expectation that women take on the role of primary carer and it is no wonder that only 9% of women are in the top positions. Statistics have shown that women have to work 2.5 times harder to be held in the same regard and even then, someone is bound to say it’s a diversity hire. We need to change the way we treat gender in children, girls need to be raised the same as boys and responsibilities around family and gender roles need to be scrapped. But realistically, that won’t happen anytime soon.

Women are less likely than men to apply for a job role if it is a step up from their current role. They are also less likely to apply for a role if they don’t meet all of the ‘requirements’ on a job advert. They are essentially seen as more selective; men are much more likely to take a punt than women.

How should these misconceptions be rectified? 

Having good support networks in place is essential. Especially for early-career females. Young women that would receive pastoral care in schools and would be surrounded by like-minded women at a similar stage in life are essentially thrown into the working world with peers that are 90% male, generally a lot older and almost entirely unrelatable. This gap needs bridging and we need to support the personal development of these young women.

In terms of families, ultimately, until the caring responsibilities of men and women are equal then there will always be an imbalance. I know that I’m very lucky to be part of a household where there is equal responsibility for childcare. We both do our part.  My husband used to take our daughter for a walk every day and people would literally pull their cars over to tell him how good a father he is whereas I have never been told I’m a good mother by a stranger. As much as I agree my husband is amazing, he could do the bare minimum and be revered while women sacrifice their careers, their bodies, their social lives, and their very identity and still be considered as bang average by society. The imbalance is astonishing.

Engineer is not portrayed as an attractive career path

Q: Perception level – recent data shows that girls from as young as 11 don’t believe that engineering is ‘just for boys’ – what they perceive is that engineering just isn’t a desirable career path, and there isn’t any glamour or prestige associated. What would you say to that? Does more need to be done to raise the profile of the industry and the years of study and on-the-job training? Should engineering be portrayed as being ‘more glamorous’ to attract females to the industry?

In my opinion, people simply have a very narrow view of what engineering is, there are hundreds of different engineering roles within most companies, and the breadth of roles in other industries is massive too. If people realised the full scope of the engineering sector and all it encompasses, they would be much more open to considering it as a career.

The visibility of women in engineering needs to increase. You don’t have to tell a little girl she could be a nurse or a teacher when she grows up because we are acquainted with and see female nurses and teachers everywhere – on tv or in the news. If we saw more female engineers, if it became less of an anomaly and more of a reality, then naturally we’re going to have more conversations around it.

There are so many incredible opportunities within this field, engineers are at the forefront of every technological advancement and almost every aspect of day-to-day life. There is no aspect of life that doesn’t have engineering behind it, and if people knew the scope of the sector then they would surely be more open to its credibility and potential impact as a career. Engineering accounts for 18% of the workforce, that’s huge, and the career prospects within engineering as an industry are exceptional, not to mention the earning potential.

Equal rates would equal the title of ‘engineer’ to be held in high regard

For example, in Spain, the title of ‘engineer’ is held in high regard, the same as a doctor in fact, this perception is often attributed to the equal rates of male and female engineers – What are your thoughts on this? 

I believe that engineering used to be held in higher regard when most engineers needed a degree. Personally, I believe that on-the-job experience is more valuable than education so it’s great that the industry moved away from this thinking, however, it has caused the term ‘engineer’ to lose some of its impact.

Within engineering, you need experience or education or both, but an industry move towards overcomplicating roles means that some entry-level positions are now given an ‘engineer’ title so the impact isn’t as significant and people struggle to distinguish between technician and engineer positions.

In Canada, qualified engineers wear an ‘iron ring’ which they are presented during a traditional ‘ritual’ on graduation. It is worn on the little finger of their writing hand so it is in contact with paper when they write, to provide a constant reminder of the obligations and ethics associated with the profession. This level of ceremony is so impactful, not only recognising the significance of the qualification but instilling a sense of pride in the profession.

The UK doesn’t hold engineering in such high regard as many countries, and particularly following the pandemic, a lot of school children who previously stated they would consider engineering seemingly redirected their interest to medicine.

The impact of education and awareness at school age

My little girl loves tractors, cars, and trucks. She also loves a doll, but she’s equally interested in the wheels on her toy pram. I always have to shop in the boy’s section so she can wear jumpers with tractors on and people are always mistaking her for a boy. At the age of 2, it really means nothing yet but the way people’s language change is always surprising.  It goes from“strong,” “fast,” and “brave” to “cute,” “pretty” and even “a flirt.” The narrative children hear from such a young age is astonishing.

There is an ongoing argument in my family as to whether my daughter will be an engineer or a surgeon (like her grandpa) but of course, she can pursue whatever career she chooses. My husband and I will raise her to know she can do anything she wants if she works hard enough, and no career, hobby or behaviour is inherently gendered and irrelevant to what society may tell her.

At 10 years old, the amount of boys and girls who are interested in STEM is almost equal and impressively high at almost 75%. By 12 – 13, girls’ interest drops significantly while boys remain steady and by 18 years old, both have fallen significantly, with only 33% of boys interested in STEM and only 19% of girls.

Generally, at school, STEM subjects can provide the most interesting and engaging subjects, with the opportunity for student interaction and demonstration. From creating working codes to conducting science experiments, the subjects are inherently practical yet interest decreases. For me, it was one boring teacher that sucked the joy out of the subject, which influenced my decision to change subjects. Undeniably teachers have a huge impact and subsequently huge responsibility so it is a reasonably safe assumption that some teachers could be part of the problem.

Who didn’t love getting the Bunsen burner out in Chemistry class? Many students may even take that over analysing the social commentaries and endless metaphors in the Catcher in the Rye any day, so what’s happening that disengages young people?

It’s hard to pinpoint the problem, but by having teachers, ambassadors and representatives that can make the subjects come alive, can discuss them with genuine passion and demonstrate their transferability into the working world we can attempt to bridge the gap and keep children, especially girls interested past the age of 10.

Last words of wisdom from our aspiring engineer

Proactive recruitment and increased visibility have been proven to increase female applicants to STEM roles, but the issue doesn’t end with recruitment. We need to engage and empower young women when they are in a business, give them a support network, teach them other women are allies and not the competition and take a holistic approach to career development.  A 2019 study by the Society of Women Engineers found that 65% of women’s motivation for staying with a company and likely the industry is growth, development and relationships. These are all things that can be relatively easily influenced and if we celebrate women of all ages, for their contribution and potential within the industry then we may have a better chance of making some positive change.

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About The Author

Lukas Vanterpool

I started The Sterling Choice with Gareth Whyatt back in August 2013. We’ve always remained true to ourselves and what it is we’re trying to achieve – A great company with great people and great results! This journey never stops, we are always finding ways to support our colleagues and make sure they leave every day feeling fulfilled.

Over the years I’ve always been asked “what’s your USP??, what makes you different from all the other agencies??”. That’s an easy one for me to answer – “Our culture makes our business and our people make our culture”

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