I believe I have one of the most exciting jobs around. I work on projects that affect millions of people every single day, striving to deliver a safe and high-performing railway for Britain. And yes, I am an engineer and I am a woman.
But unfortunately, I am one of few females that holds such a positive view of the industry. New research conducted by child psychologists for Network Rail worryingly reveals that girls as young as seven have an “unconscious bias” against working as an engineer someday– thinking it is too dirty and messy – and by the age of 14, many have switched off from the idea completely.
There is hope, however. The study identifies a window of opportunity at age 11, when we can make a particularly positive impact on the way schoolgirls view engineering as a career choice. We need to highlight to them the social purpose of engineering, because although they perceive it as unglamorous, girls of this age showed an appreciation for this fulfilling aspect of the job. In the UK, we can certainly do more to emphasise this in educational outreach and entry-level recruitment programmes.
The use of positive role models was also seen by researchers to have a notable influence on girls’ attitudes to engineering roles. This provides a crucial piece of the puzzle to solving the issue of gender imbalance in our workforce. We absolutely need to make sure that young girls know about the many women already enjoying highly successful careers as engineers.
But while a handful of women make it to the top, the general perception that engineering is a man’s job still stubbornly prevails.
Companies that employ engineers need to tell their female rising stars just how important it is to the future of the industry that they share their stories in order to “sell” what they do to their peers. Employers should also be actively looking for opportunities for their female engineers to spread the message even wider that engineering really is a dynamic and mentally stimulating field of work.
It is clear from this new research that we need to move quickly to stop bright minds dismissing becoming one of us on the basis of misinformation and hackneyed stereotypes. Frankly, it would be a tragedy for engineering if we lost potential future talent forever on these very shaky foundations of knowledge.