The review into engineering by Professor Simon Perkins highlights the low proportion of women working in the field and states: “One of the main reasons…is girls’ subject choices in school.”
Few girls study mathematics, and even fewer physics, through to A-level. In 2011, 49 per cent of state-funded schools had no girls taking A-level physics at all. Much has been written on the issue, including by me. Many initiatives have been tried, but the proportion of women engineers remains stubbornly small.
Government should continue to support schools to increase progression to A-level physics, especially among female students
An important development is the latest report by the Institute of Physics. It contains important information on subject choices in secondary schools. Entitled Closing Doors, it shows the individual consequences to young people of choosing particular subjects for A-level – in particular, the decision not to study physics closes doors to a wide range of engineering roles.
Importantly, the research is undertaken on a wide range of subjects: three that are predominantly studied by girls at A-level and identified as such, and three predominantly studied by boys and identified as boys’ subjects. The research shows that is not just in physics that there is a significant failure to challenge gender stereotyping.
Simply cajoling girls to study physics, however, is not an answer; there are wider issues of gender stereotyping in schools. The gender equality duty, introduced by the Equality Act 2006, requires public bodies to have due regard to the need “to promote equality of opportunity between men and women”.
That also means between girls and boys. Some schools do challenge stereotyping, and we need more research to understand how they do that and what works for students.
Professor Perkins argues that we should be aiming to inspire 11 to 14-year-olds to become tomorrow’s engineers. However, I contend that our efforts to broaden young people’s views of where science can take them must begin at the very least at primary school, if not earlier. Most children form an early view about the kind of careers that are open to them, so focusing on secondary school children is likely to be too little, too late.
We should ensure that all nursery, primary and secondary education is free from gender bias in the roles presented to children. A previous report by the Institute of Physics, It’s Different for Girls, outlined how single-sex schools are significantly better than co-educational schools at getting girls into non-traditional subjects.
At a co-educational school, a girl choosing physics is likely to be in a minority; in a single-sex school that is clearly not a problem. I do not advocate single-sex schools at all, but we must learn why they are getting more girls to study physics than co-educational schools.
Role models are very important, and in Sheffield we have an inspiring one. Ruth Amos is 24-years-old and already running her own company. She designed a product, the StairSteady, for her GCSE resistant materials course, to help people who have difficulty using stairs but do not have the money or space for a stairlift. We should champion stories such as Ruth’s.
Of course, a traditional academic approach is not the only way to develop tomorrow’s engineers. The Perkins review rightly stresses the importance of providing elite vocational provision. We have seen the success of that in Sheffield. The University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre with Boeing is focusing on recruiting more female apprentices, with a new cohort joining in April.
Sheffield Hallam University’s Women in Science, Engineering and Technology team is providing advice and support on how to make that ambition a reality.
But encouraging girls and women into these areas is not enough if the culture in the workplace does not change. Employers must do much more to support people returning to engineering following a career break. Adopting measures such as flexible working and better managed career breaks for maternity leave also benefits employers.
For example, Mott MacDonald, an engineering firm in Sheffield, benefited when it allowed Cathy Travers, its most senior female engineer, to work during term time only when her children were young. That adaptability retained a talented and experienced employee.
The best performing companies are often those with diversity high on their agenda. As such, we need an environment in the engineering sector that welcomes women. Only when all our young people have the opportunity to realise their potential can we ensure that Britain develops the very best of tomorrow’s engineers.
Meg Munn is the Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley who spoke in a Parliamentary debate on engineering skills.