According to Network Rail, a narrow window between the ages of seven and 14 can leave girls without a desire to enter engineering – but there are plenty of ways that the UK can improve their opinions of the subject
Although increasing numbers of initiatives have been launched to encourage more women into STEM careers, there’s no denying we still have a long way to go. In no discipline is this clearer than engineering; according to a Royal Academy of Engineering analysis of the labour force, just 6% of the engineering workforce is female. Inevitably the journey for encouraging more women to take up engineering begins in the classroom – and this is supported by new research that demonstrates there is a window between the ages of seven and 14 that is critical for attracting girls into engineering.
Undertaken by InnovationBubble, the behavioural psychology research consultancy, on behalf of Network Rail, the Switch On, Switch Off research identified things about engineering that enticed and put off girls of different age groups. It revealed that girls aged seven to nine are turned off by perceptions that engineering is messy and dirty but attracted by the social purpose behind it. Meanwhile, those aged from ten to 12 are worried that engineering is dangerous and that they aren’t strong enough yet respond well to positive role models in engineering. Finally, girls aged 13 to 15 believe engineering is unsocial and unglamorous but liked the fact that a different sort of career could help them stand out.
The research went on to identify a variety of ways the UK could make engineering a more attractive career path to girls. First of all, it recommended that girls should be given a definition of what engineering is from a young age, one which better explains the role that engineers play in how things are designed and built. It also recommended emphasising the social value of engineering, utilising games such as Minecraft to introduce more engineering in girls’ social lives and focusing on successful women who have chosen the profession, rather than bemoaning the lack of female engineers.
Hoping to put the research’s findings into practice, Network Rail is looking to boost its schools programme. By 2018, it will be providing 3,000 teenage girls from schools in Milton Keynes with careers advice on working on the railways, as well as appointing role models amongst its employees to act as ambassadors for female rail engineers. It will also roll out a work experience scheme supported by Barclays in the new school year and work with campaign group Women in Science, Technology and Engineering to further explore why girls avoid careers in these industries.
“Role models are crucial to show girls and women what’s possible and where their potential can take them,” said Jane Simpson, chief engineer for Network Rail. “I was lucky to have a female role model who saw my potential and helped me realise it. Some quite senior men were astonished that I could talk confidently about complex engineering problems but they soon came to see me for what I could do, not my gender. As the most senior engineer in one of Britain’s biggest engineering companies I know I can help girls along a similar path and be part of something special.”
Hopefully this research will allow Network Rail to engineer more gender-balanced technical industries.