From Embryo to Engineer

When should we begin the development of the next generation of engineers and how should we go about it?

Data compiled by Engineering UK into their 2017 issue of 'The State of Engineering' shows that engineering contributes 26% of the UK's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but that there will be an ongoing shortfall in engineering graduates of at least 20,000 per year.

At the same time, new technology is emerging at an unprecedented rate. The engineering of that technology will touch all aspects of our lives, from healthcare to infrastructure to the sustainable management of natural resources. It is clear then, that we need to develop more engineers to support the future social and economic success of the UK. Where will we find them?

I completed my Chemical Engineering degree in 1986. I can remember that there were just four women in a class of fifty (8%). The 'State of Engineering' report shows that only one in eight (13%) people employed in engineering today are women. It is surprising that we have moved on so little in 30 years.

If we can break down gender stereotypes, attract more girls and young women to the profession and provide them with the necessary skills and support, then our resourcing deficit will be solved.

The good news is that more organisations than ever are now determined to support this challenge. Gender equity is firmly on the agenda at our best engineering firms, whilst the professional engineering institutions have established objectives for increased inclusivity.

Engineering UK and the Royal Academy of Engineering are among others in reaching out directly to schoolchildren through programmes such as Tomorrow's Engineers and The Big Bang. Additionally, the UK Government has announced that 2018 will be the 'Year of Engineering' and is looking to work with the entire industry to raise awareness of engineering and promote it as a great career choice.

In terms of education, children choose their GCSE subjects in year 9 (aged 13 to 14). For a future in engineering, they should be looking at maths and physics as a minimum. It is already compulsory to choose maths and at least one science, but they don't have to choose physics.

So, we should engage with 12-year-old boys and girls, convince them that engineering is cool and that they should choose physics. Then we can continue to support them through their schooling to ensure that they follow the correct path to a bright future in the profession.

Right? If only it were that simple.

I was enthralled recently by the excellent BBC documentary, 'No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free'. The programme followed a class of 7-year-olds to examine their attitudes to gender and to test certain aspects of ability. The results were remarkable. The children showed clearly that they were already imprinted with strong beliefs in gender stereotype. They quickly associated various professions with either men or women.

Some of the findings were quite disturbing. Several of the girls assumed that "boys are smarter and stronger" than girls. The girls tended to under-estimate their own abilities whilst the boys tended to over-estimate theirs.

One fascinating aspect involved the testing of spatial awareness and ability, often thought to be essential for engineering. The children were asked to solve geometrical puzzles and the most successful tended to be the boys.

Interestingly though, after just two weeks training and practice, there was no obvious difference in the ability of the sexes. The programme concluded that parents, teachers and other adults tend to reinforce gender stereotypes from the very start of a baby's life and that the toys they give them help to develop very different skills.

I believe that the development of our next generation of engineers needs to start as soon as they are born. We need to eliminate gender stereotyping, certainly when it comes to toys, skills, esteem and careers and equip all our children with the ability, confidence and appetite to become the engineers of the future.

The influencers in those early years, though, are the parents, families, child-minders, nurseries and teachers. It is time for the engineering profession to put as much time, if not more, into engaging with those influencers as we do in engaging with the schoolchildren themselves.

Engineering UK 2017: The State of Engineering

Tomorrow's EngineersĀ

The Big BangĀ

2018: Year of EngineeringĀ

No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free