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  • Louise Grace

Are Women the Answer to the UKs Engineering Shortage?

Are women the answer?

There is compelling evidence to suggest that women are the answer to the UK’s engineering skills shortage. According to a report published by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the scale of the skills shortage has created a need for action to improve the diversity and inclusion in engineering at all skill levels. Currently, 92% of the engineering workforce are male (1). Engineering is historically male dominated. Stereotypes that persist could still be influencing the low applications of women in engineering.

Where does it STEM from?

It has been established that there are not enough girls being put forward for maths or physics at A-Levels - gateway subjects into the engineering field. Further investigation reveals that physics is a more popular choice for A-level in an all-girls school than in a mixed state school. With half the state schools not being able to put forward a single girl for physics A-Level.

Professor John Perkins highlighted the UK’s engineering skills shortage in a report published in 2013 (2). The report showed that the short-term gaps in engineering talent were being filled by foreign workers. The long-term goal for providing opportunities in UK engineering, involves reaching people at an early age and girls in particular need to be targeted. Many schools are already aware of the opportunities available with a STEM career, and are actively encouraging and enabling their pupils in that direction.

Over the last five years, there has been an increase of female engineering professionals going up by 45% from 2014 to 2015. However, this increase only makes up 8.2% of this group, so there is still much work to be done. (3)

What is the solution to this skills gap?

In a letter written by Lord Selbourne to the House of Lords on Industrial Strategy earlier this year, Sir Michael Arthur from Boeing explains that “the governments emphasis on skills, particularly STEM skills, are vital. We need to do more in this area just on basic education in the next generation of technologies”. The letter goes on to point out that due to the large gap between the requirements of the future and the level of the provision in the education system, enhancing digital skills at all levels will be key to a successful long term industrial strategy. Lord Selborne further states that “STEM subjects should be given much more emphasis in primary as well as secondary school.” (4)

Dame Prof Ann Dowling, (the President of the Royal Academy of Engineering) confirms the idea that specific skills are a huge area which need to be addressed and tackled. As well as matching to the workforce for companies’ requirements. By 2022, she says, the country needs at least 1.82 million new engineering, science and technology professionals (5). In order to tackle this shortage we need to include a more diverse workforce. Women and ethnic minorities are completely underrepresented in this industry. For instance, only 8% of the engineering professionals in the UK are female and an even smaller proportion for engineering apprentices. This is why, in 2015, the Royal Academy of Engineering set up a Diversity Leadership group to remove barriers and encourage more women and other under-represented groups into engineering.

The Diversity Leadership Group (DLG) has produced, through a report (1), statistics that demonstrate where the gaps need to be filled. Whilst 92% of applicants to engineering degree courses in 2016 were male, 94% of the applicants were white. Some of the ethnic groups measured in these statistics are so few that they don’t reflect in a chart representing their respective groups, so they have been grouped as Black and Minority Ethnicity (BME).

In 2016 the Royal Academy of Engineering set up The Diversity and Inclusion Programme (D&IP), whose activities are directed through the Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Group (DILG) to deliver projects aiming to improve diversity and inclusion within the profession.

The Diversity and Inclusion Programme’s Strategic aims (2016-2020) (6):

1: Challenging the status quo

Identify, develop and deliver visible interventions that increase diversity and inclusion, challenge the status quo and lead to sustained change.

2: Demonstrating leadership

Lead by galvanising the profession and demonstrating exemplary diversity and inclusion practice.

3: Sustain and extend current relationships

Sustain and extend relationships, partnerships and networks to maximise effectiveness of the programme.

4: Communicating and consulting

Implement a plan that encourages communication and consultation on board approach, progress, achievements and business benefits.

5: Publicise success measures and benchmarks

Develop and cascade programme success measures and benchmarks against which to track progress.

Our Xpert Opinion

Education is key to changing the future of engineering in the UK. Mixed state schools in particular will need to put forward more girls for physics and maths A-Level, for the shortage in women with the right skills sets to then be able to go on to study engineering. Great steps are being taken to adjust the stereotypes that exist and make real changes, with work continuing by the Academy’s action groups (The Diversity Leadership Group, The Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Group (DILG), Diversity & Inclusion programme’s (D&IP)), collaborating with a wide range of business and engineering, diversity and inclusion focused organisations. We will be interested to see how these groups and their aims impact the UK's engineering skills shortage with the hope that existing cultural and social stereotypes can be shifted over time.

With just 6% of applications being Black and Minority Ethnicity (BME) – this is an area that impacts the deficit of professionals in engineering.

Women make up 51% of the working age population, but they make up only 8% of professional engineers. A growth in applicants and students to the engineering sector could help boost the skills shortage.

We know that the younger generation needs to be inspired towards a career in one of these crucial areas, to pave the way for the future economy of the country.

An additional 500,000 advanced technicians and engineers will be needed by 2022. According to Engineering UK, engineering companies are projected to need 182,000 per year with engineering skills each year to 2022 [7]. As Dame Professor Ann Dowling points out - Many of the jobs we will need in 20 years’ time have not yet been invented, just as many of the jobs advertised today did not exist 20 years ago (5).

How our education system evolves in the UK will shape the jobs of tomorrow. Would further choices for young people in education, help eliminate the possible uncertainty in choosing physics or maths at A-Level? Perhaps we will we see an A-Level in Engineering sometime in the near future, to help steer students with the right potential into this field.

What do you think it will take to fill the UKs engineering shortage?


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