A national day of talks and awards will look at breaking down old stereotypes for the sake of a healthy economy, reports Andrew Collier

SCOTLAND and the UK helped to industrialise the world, and there is a strong legacy of engineering skills here which exists today. However, in gender terms, it’s an area of the economy which is distinctly one-sided.

The United Kingdom has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe. Countries such as Latvia, Cyprus and Bulgaria have some 30 per cent of women in their technical workforces. Here, we’re not yet at 10 per cent.

It’s an obvious area of opportunity for ambitious women who want a challenging career. Nearly two thirds of engineering employers say a shortage of suitable staff is a threat to their business, while a third have difficulty recruiting experienced employees.

Undoubtedly part of the problem is perception. Engineering is still seen as an area of the economy which requires physical strength and indifference to getting oily and dirty. But in this digital age, it’s an outdated and inaccurate view; women can not only do the work, but also excel at it every bit as much as – or more than – men.

Today Scotland celebrates International Women in Engineering Day, which is an annual awareness event to raise the profile of females in engineering and also to flag up some of the tremendous career opportunities which are available in the sector.

It was originally set up in 2014 to mark the 95th anniversary of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). This organisation was first established in 1919 at the end of the First World War when females who had worked in technical jobs wanted to continue in those roles. Today’s events are designed to focus attention on the rewarding jobs which are available in the sector at a time when it has never been more important to get people into engineering in order to address the current skills shortage.

A spokesperson for WES said: "This year, the event has become truly international for the first time. It is aimed at raising the profile of women in engineering and focusing attention on the amazing career opportunities available to girls in this exciting industry.

"By encouraging girls into engineering careers we will not only be increasing diversity and inclusion – a business imperative – but it will also enable us to fill the substantial future job opportunities that have been predicted in this sector.

"The idea behind International Women in Engineering Day is to encourage all groups – governmental, educational, corporate, professional engineering Institutions, individuals and other organisations – to organise their own events in support."

The society has three roles. The first of these is to support women in achieving their potential as engineers, applied scientists and leaders and to reward excellence. The second is to encourage and promote the education, study and application of engineering.

The third is to promote sustainability, working with organisations and influencers to promote gender equality and diversity in the workplace and to sustain the historic legacy and future effectiveness of the society.

One event which took place last night was a celebration of the day by Equate Scotland. It joined the University of Strathclyde and WISE in hosting a gathering and networking session in Glasgow which included applauding the success of women engineers and hearing motivating stories from international female engineers about their experiences, including studying and working in Scotland.

Events planned in Scotland for today and open to the public include an afternoon of talks, a poster competition and an awards ceremony at the Department of Civil Engineering and Interconnect at Abertay University. There will also be a free CPD workshop hosted by Equate Scotland on the subject of unconscious bias, though booking for this is required.

In Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt Women’s Engineering Society (HWU-WES) is hosting a celebration of engineering careers. Five inspiring women will talk about their work and experience and will explore the exciting opportunities and the challenges that engineering offers.

The University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering is hosting an event of celebration, highlighting the achievements and successes of its inspiring students, staff and alumnae. Professor Liz Tanner OBE and electronics with music graduate and IET’s young woman of the year Orla Murphy will be the guest speakers, as will FemEng president Nina Birchard. There will also be a panel session and the opportunity to network.

There is no doubt there is plenty of work still to do. Statistics produced last year reveal that only nine per cent of the engineering workforce is female. When you look at registered engineers and technicians with qualifications such as CEng, IEng and EngTech, that figure falls to just six per cent.

The proportion of young women studying engineering and physics in the UK has remained virtually static since 2012. A total of 15.8 per cent of engineering and technology graduates are female. However, in India the comparable figure is more than 30 per cent.

There is a real and pressing need to double – at the very least – the number of UK based university engineering students. In 2015, the annual shortfall was 55,000. The number of women fellows of the Royal Academy of Engineering rose from just two per cent in 2006 to a still paltry four per cent in 2014.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh has expressed its concern in the past about the underrepresentation of women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) sector generally.

It reported: "It is of particular importance when the strategic importance of this field is considered – economic growth relies
heavily on innovation and knowledge.

"In a straitened economy where education is free, the failure to provide a workplace where skilled individuals – male or female – can progress and thrive is a wasted investment in human capital and represents a serious loss of potential for Scotland."


Ayrshire College: Positive change STEMS from an inclusive approach, from the playground to the workplace

GETTING more women into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects is an important mission of Ayrshire College. Of its over 12,000 students – nearly 7,000 of them full time – across its Kilmarnock, Ayr and Kilwinning campuses, 25 per cent are doing courses in these areas. The college has championed workforce diversity since it was founded in 2013 and continues to come up with imaginative ways to attract women into STEM careers. Jackie Galbraith is one of the college’s vice principals. Here she discusses the college’s commitment to bringing more women into the sector.

So why have you made this commitment?

Quite simply because it’s the right thing to do. Ayrshire has a strong engineering economy and of course it’s close to Glasgow where there are lots of digital jobs. There are many great job and apprenticeship opportunities in these sectors but many young people, especially girls, don’t know about them. We want to make sure that young people make choices in the full knowledge of all the exciting jobs and careers out there. Our mission is to take gender out of the equation when it comes to making these choices.

What sort of things have you been doing?

Lots. Back in 2015, our student association created the This Ayrshire Girl Can campaign and we have embraced this as our strategic campaign to attract women into STEM. We have dozens, probably hundreds, of videos and blogs on our website with real life case studies of women studying and working in STEM. They focus on the potential of the individual so that people viewing them think ‘she’s just like me ... I could do that.’

Are you involved with schools to get pupils thinking about this early on?

Absolutely. In the past three years, over 1,000 primary and secondary pupils have taken part in our computer coding courses. In partnership with SmartSTEMs, we’ve just had 250 first and second year girls take part in a Technology Workout for a full day with employers leading interactive activities. We target events at different ages – primary schools, early secondary, and in the senior phase. We’ve just completed a week-long Mission Discovery, led by the International Space School Educational Trust, where 150 school and college students worked on space experiments – the winning experiment will be launched on the International Space Station. A high proportion of those taking part were female. We encourage teachers and guidance staff to use our videos of female engineering apprentices and blog case studies to showcase young women forging successful careers in STEM. In addition, last year we created a mentoring network called Ayrshire Connects which links women on STEM courses across the college with each other, with women at other colleges and universities, and with employers. So there’s a lot going on.

How quickly will you see results?

There is a lot of cultural change required for real impact so this is a long-term programme. I started in computing 30 years ago and, proportionately, there are actually fewer females studying and working in the sector now than there were then. So we need to effect a big cultural shift and that’s not going to happen overnight. The important thing is not to start, stop and start again, but to keep going until we see change. There will come a tipping point at some stage.

Is there still a perception in Scotland that engineering in particular is about heavy, dirty jobs? In other words, is our historic legacy as the workshop of the world a bit of a liability?

Some people might think that in the absence of knowing differently. But things are changing. Many engineering companies now have modern, clean, leading edge working environments. Fixing aircraft, for instance, is very different from the heavy industry of the past and again, and our blogs and videos reinforce that change. And more engineering workplaces are using innovative digital technology which opens up even more opportunities for high value careers.

Are local companies as keen as you are to take women into workforces?

We have a fantastic relationship with many employers who really see the advantages and provide a very supportive and proactive environment to attract women in. For those who don’t yet see the benefit, it’s just a case of helping them see that employing women can bring benefits beyond the technical skills which they have in equal measure to their male colleagues. There’s evidence out there that the most diverse companies are the best ones. So employing women is demonstrably good for businesses and for the economy.