Semali Perera, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Bath, on the gender gap in engineering

While the number of women in high-up industry positions is lacking, the number of women I meet every day who are building companies, in charge of multi-million pound technology projects and helping communities is immense. In the UK, only 13% (693,000) of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce are women. According to the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) statistics, 15.8% of engineering and technology undergraduates are female. However, women account for only 5.5 percent of the engineering workforce in the UK and less than four percent of engineering technicians (IET 2015). It is also reported that STEM women earn on average £140,000 less than men over their working careers.

Once in work, many female engineers report high job satisfaction, although there are still problems within the industry regarding the retention of women. For example, two-thirds of female engineers do not resume their engineering jobs after taking maternity leave [IPPR: September 2014]. Women working in science are less likely to take career breaks than women in other occupations. Among many reasons cited by critics of the disparity of women in STEM, like the lack of female role models and encouragement, alongside childcare, stereotype threat is the most prominent. As boys are still stereotypically seen as better scientists and mathematicians, they are encouraged to embrace the topics from a young age and inevitably become more confident in their abilities.

It’s been recorded that 70% of women feel anxious about taking a career break. Finding a mentor can be an invaluable career asset for women, especially in industries not renowned for their gender diversity. Mentors can help open up networks, set and achieve goals, and give a sense that someone is looking out for them. Encouraging men to sit on women-focused panels at tech events is one of the easiest ways to encourage better gender relations.

The IET believes that the difficulty in attracting women into engineering is not just a diversity issue, but an economic one – as the UK needs to find 1.82 million new engineers by 2022. In April the Commons Science and Technology Committee report drew attention to the significant lack of women with advanced skills in STEM fields.

“Once in work, many female engineers report high job satisfaction, although there are still problems within the industry regarding the retention of women…”

The age of 16 is the most critical point at which women are lost to a potential career in engineering. For far more women than men, A Level and vocational subject choices made at this age close the pathway into careers in engineering. By the time students are deciding what to study at university, for STEM subjects, they need to have already been doing science and especially maths.

As engineers, we can apply our knowledge to improve the nation’s health, create a better environment by designing energy efficient cleaner processes and equipment, improve the quality of food that we eat, build energy efficient houses, and transport, etc.

It is clear teachers, lectures and professional organisations such as the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and IET across the country are encouraging both sexes to pursue careers in science and technology industries – girls perform as well as, and often even better than, boys do in STEM at school, also in engineering degrees at universities. The main question is why do girls and women let their talent fall by the wayside?

It’s at university where the difference is even more stark: six times as many men study engineering and technology at undergraduate level compared to women. In our chemical engineering degree course we have around 30% females; I know this number is much lower in other engineering disciplines.

The University of Bath staff are undertaking a great deal of outreach activities to promote STEM subjects. We believe that the crucial decision is made with A Level choices. We promote visiting universities, speaking to professionals, going on taster courses, and getting direct experience through Headstart courses. At the University of Bath, we celebrate National Women in Engineering Day (NWED) every year by hosting a day-long event on campus for more than 80 to 100 local secondary school female students. The students have the opportunity to listen to female engineering students and staff and take part in workshop activities such as building water purification processes, making cosmetics and tower building which demonstrates engineering’s wide range of applications across chemical engineering to civil engineering.

“The University of Bath staff are undertaking a great deal of outreach activities to promote STEM subjects…”

We all need encouragement, support and guidance of role models and mentors. In the Faculty of Engineering and Design at Bath, the Women in Engineering academic group and Student Women’s Engineering Society (WESBath) provides aspiring female engineers with information and support and showcases the achievements of our female staff, students and alumni. The two groups have developed a teachers’ toolkit and have created webpages containing news, funding information, employment opportunities and events that may be of interest to female school pupils.

Even in occupations where women have a long history of access, they remain under-represented at the top; in higher education, women account for a quarter of full-time lecturers, but just ten per cent are professors. In the Department of Chemical Engineering, we have two female professors (33%), and it is greater than the sector average. Our percentage of female staff has also grown from around 26% to 33%.

A greater number of organisations are promoting and celebrating the achievement of female engineers and businesswomen. An excellent example of this is Women’s Network, FDM Everywoman, which runs the awards to celebrate the achievements of women in the STEM industries. I was proud to win 2017 FDM Everywoman in Technology award and delighted that this is the second consecutive year a University of Bath member of staff has been recognised, with head of physics Professor Carole Mundell winning last year’s awards.

As a chemical engineer I enjoy working closely with industry and I believe that regardless of gender, if you have the ambition and drive you can create your own success in engineering.

Main image: Semali Perera, Professor of chemical engineering at the University of Bath, winner of the Academic Award in the UK’s biggest programme championing women in technology, the 2017 FDM Everywoman in Technology Awards