The proportion of engineering and technology graduates who are women has barely changed over the past 10 years despite the government spending millions on initiatives designed to boost female participation in such subjects.
Such an apparent lack of return on investment has raised questions about the effectiveness of tying £200 million in funding for new science, engineering, technology and maths teaching facilities, announced this week, to commitments on diversity.
Only 15.5 per cent of graduates from first degree courses in engineering and technology in 2012-13 were women, down from 15.6 per cent in 2003-04, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Although the proportion of female graduates has fluctuated slightly during the interim years it has stuck stubbornly at between 14.8 and 16.6 per cent. The absolute number of female graduates in the subjects has increased by 750 in the past 10 years.
Over the same time period the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and its predecessor departments have funded a series of projects that, as part of their aims, have hoped to encourage young women to consider careers in engineering and technology, as well as other STEM subjects.
The STEM Ambassadors programme, through which a network of more than 28,000 volunteers from all disciplines visit schools to encourage children to choose careers in STEM subjects, is one among a number of projects promoting STEM to young people that have received around £50 million from 2002-03 to 2012-13.
An additional £1 million went to the Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Society STEM Diversity Programme between 2011 and 2013. These programmes have published reports on diversity in the STEM workforce, best practice case studies from industry and documents to improve public awareness of engineering. BIS added that there are further sector-specific initiatives across its industrial strategies.
Rethinking the strategy
Averil Macdonald, a University of Southampton professor who leads on diversity for the South East Physics Network and who authored a report published last month about why current initiatives on women in engineering are failing, said a change of strategy was needed.
“Everybody who is currently trying to engage with girls [on engineering] needs to realise that they have to change what they are doing, because frankly the evidence is that it doesn’t work,” she said.
Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, said more firm action was needed on tackling the issue before university.
“Until we see a significant increase in the number of girls taking physics A level there won’t be much of an increase in them applying to university to read engineering,” Dame Athene said.
She added that the Department for Education’s Your Life campaign, which BIS supports with staff and resources but not finance, was designed to encourage young people to stick with maths and physics after the age of 16. This may have an effect on engineering applications, she said, “but even that is targeting girls at 14 to 16, not earlier, and that may already be too late for many to have an open enough mind to contemplate engineering”.
Dame Julia King, vice-chancellor of Aston University, added that universities could be doing more to make engineering appealing to women, including accepting a wider range of A levels in applications. She added that universities should also revise approaches to practical classes, especially in the early years, to better appeal to women.
“It can seem pretty alien in the first year of an engineering course to some young women,” she said.
“Girls may have much less experience at building electronics kits, taking cars apart [and] may not have been given constructional toys as children, so [they] may need approaches to build up these skills,” Dame Julia added.
Launching more courses in bio- and biomedical engineering, which attract about 50 per cent female participation, could also help, she said.
This week, BIS announced £200 million of funding allocations that will be distributed to university departments to improve STEM teaching facilities. The funding, which will be matched by industry, was originally announced in 2013 by former universities minister David Willetts as a way of increasing the number of female STEM students. It was intended to be awarded only to institutions that demonstrated a commitment to diversity and equality, for example through success in the Athena SWAN awards.
Responding to the figures on female engineering graduates, a BIS spokesman said its strategy was long term and “results will take time to come through”.
He said that after a major review of engineering skills carried out last year by John Perkins, the BIS chief scientific adviser, “government and business will continue to work together to inspire and develop the next generation of female engineers”.