The STEM sector needs more women.
We have all, no doubt, heard this statement many times, from many leaders – especially today, on International Women in Engineering Day. As the Minister for Women, however, I know this is true now more than ever.
Women in the UK tend to work in lower paid roles. Over half of all UK women work in the health, education and retail sectors – and, even though women make up the majority in these sectors, progression is difficult and they are underrepresented in senior levels.
I am proud that the national gender pay gap is at a record low of 17.3% – a considerable improvement on the 22% gap a decade ago. The full-time gender gap is also at a near record low of 8.9%. This is excellent progress but we know that there is more to be done to ensure women are fairly represented in the workplace, and able to truly level up their careers to match their talents.
The unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19 have again demonstrated that far too many women remain in precarious or low paid roles with little opportunity for progression. Women are about one third more likely to work in a sector that is now shut down as part of the response to COVID-19 than men.
I believe that the economic recovery from this crisis must enable any women who want to change careers to upskill, retrain and find high quality roles in industries that they may not have considered entering before. Industries like those that many of you work in and with.
That is why I am pleased that the Government announced a £2.5 billion National Skills Fund, to help ensure that businesses can find and hire the workers they need and help people fulfil their potential. This exciting new policy will look to transform and re-energise the adult training landscape and boost productivity to ensure more people and places can share in the rewards that improved productivity can bring.
The fund will build on the extensive research and testing carried out through the National Retraining Scheme, using this valuable evidence to inform how we can support adults and employers to prepare for the future economy. We have also launched The Skills Toolkit, a new online platform giving people access to free, high-quality digital and numeracy courses to help build up skills, progress in work and boost job prospects.
As we mark International Women in Engineering Day today, I would like to highlight the significance of engineering in the UK and the importance of seeing more women enter this sector.
Engineering has a key role in driving economic growth and productivity, generating an estimated 25% (£420.5 billion) of the UK’s total GDP in 2015. Additionally, 27.0% of the 2.67 million registered enterprises in the UK in 2018 fell within the engineering footprint.
This sector is clearly key to the success of the UK economy. But in 2018 only 12.0% of workers in engineering occupations were female.
We know that organisations with more women managers have been associated with higher performance, and that reducing gender gaps in labour market participation, STEM qualifications and wages, could increase the size of the UK economy by around 2% or £55 billion by 2030.
The Government has also recognised the UK’s offshore oil and gas industry’s key role in the transition to a net zero economy and has committed to deliver a transformational Sector Deal for the industry during this Parliament. We are in active discussion with the sector and will be pressing for stretching targets on improving the sector’s commitment to diversity and inclusion as part of any agreed deal.
This is part of our commitment to include work to build diversity into new policy. Under the Industrial Strategy Nuclear Sector Deal we and our partners in the nuclear sector have agreed a target of 40% women in the sector by 2030, with 50% women apprenticeship starters by the same date.
Equality at work is good for women, good for businesses, and good for our country. More must be done to get women into engineering. And we can start by celebrating the great breadth of work that is undertaken by female engineers across the country. We have to show women and girls that there is a place for them in the industry.
Here are three women who I think are inspiring:
- Dr Jane Atkinson FREng, Executive Director of Engineering and Automation at Bilfinger UK, is an award-winning engineer who, in 2007, won a CBI First Women Award CBI First Woman Award in Manufacturing for being the first woman in the world to manage a blast furnace and the second woman in the world to manage coke ovens.
- Dr Nike Folayan is an Associate Director and the Technical Discipline Leader for Communications and Control within WSP, an engineering consultancy where she leads on a variety of transport projects in the UK, Australia, South America, Middle East and Africa. She is also chair and co-founder of AFBE-UK. A not for profit organisation, AFBE-UK promotes higher achievements in education and engineering particularly among people from black and minority ethnicity (BAME) backgrounds.
- Ramona Agrawal is a structural engineer with a physics degree who spent six years working on The Shard, the tallest building in Western Europe, and designed the foundations and the ‘Spire’. She was the only woman featured on Channel 4’s documentary on the Shard, ‘The Tallest Tower’.
These are just a handful of examples of such women and I know that there are countless others. Female engineers in a range of industries are mobilising their expertise to help the UK, and other countries across the world, tackle COVID-19 by considering solutions and best practice on a range of issues from diagnostic testing and PPE to contact tracing. This work will no doubt assist in the UK’s recovery and future resilience.
It is wonderful that women in engineering are achieving so many firsts in their field, but if we are to see sustained change, they cannot be the only and they certainly cannot be the last. We must continue to build on this great work and ensure that we are doing as much as possible to inspire the next generation of female engineers.
However, boys were far more likely to consider a career in engineering – there is a 27.5 percentage point gap among those aged 11 to 14, which falls to 22.1 percentage points for those aged 16 to 19.
Additionally, just 23.6% reported knowing what people working in engineering do. These findings highlight a need to promote and strengthen knowledge of the sector, but also the need to tackle underlying gender norms that can dictate which careers are thought to be ‘for boys’ and which are ‘for girls.’
We know that at ages 7 to 11, boys are almost twice as likely as girls to want to be scientists. It is vital that we tackle these harmful gender norms as they limit aspirations for both women and men, preventing them from reaching their potential. This leads to the economy missing out on talent and employment – indeed, the overall shortage in STEM skills is thought to be costing the sector £1.5 billion a year.
I commend the work that OGUK has undertaken to address the gender imbalances in the energy industry. OGUK’s chief executive, Deirdre Michie OBE, champions gender balance throughout the industry with her role on the Women’s Business Council, a UK Government body focused on increasing women’s contribution to economic growth.
The OGUK Diversity & Inclusion Task Group, set up in 2019, aims to shape and drive efforts to improve the image of the sector as an excellent career destination; one that embraces a culture of diversity and inclusion.
The group is already developing at pace and will drive greater engagement, as well as build a community of D&I champions to assess the challenge of getting more people involved in STEM at an early stage, and promote their members’ work with schools throughout the UK.
The Government runs a youth science engagement programme which aims to inspire young people and showcase their skills and also leads on the STEM Ambassadors programme, where volunteers from the sector are invited by schools to talk about their work and experiences. 45% of these ambassadors are women, and this is a much higher proportion of women than in the STEM sector.
In order to improve gender representation in STEM industries long term, and meet growing demand, we need to encourage more girls to take STEM subjects at school, college and university. It is brilliant that there has been a 31% increase in girls’ entries to STEM A Levels in England since 2010. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of women accepted onto full-time STEM undergraduate courses increased by 34% in the UK.
However, the proportion of girls and women in certain subjects like maths and physics is still low and we know there is still more to do to reduce the imbalance in STEM subject participation between girls and boys. My own officials in the Government Equalities Office will be gathering evidence and data to identify the drivers of this imbalance, and will work with departments across Government, and with industry, to help implement effective policies.
The Government is also ensuring that there are a variety of routes into STEM careers. We are rolling out T Levels from this September, giving people a credible, technical alternative to A Levels. The courses have been developed in collaboration with employers and businesses so that the content meets the needs of industry and prepares students for work in the real world. We are also raising the quality of apprenticeships, so they better meet the skills employers need.
I know how daunting it can be for young people to decide what career path to take, and it is essential that we are able to show them that STEM careers are for everybody.
Women in engineering are helping blaze the way and I hope to see great strides being made to address gender imbalances in the STEM sector generally, as well as in this industry.
This is not only essential to our businesses and our economy, but to the overall progression of gender equality. I believe that all people should have an equal opportunity to succeed in life, and to enter into careers that make the best of their talents, regardless of their gender or background.