Business secretary highlights ‘enormous problem’ as figures show UK has lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe
Vince Cable has warned that Britain’s lack of female engineers is causing “enormous problems”, as a government review calls for concerted action to address the dearth of women in the profession.
In a review published on Monday as part of Tomorrow’s Engineers week, the government’s chief scientific adviser for business, Prof John Perkins, makes 22 recommendations to boost Britain’s engineering industry, including new vocational qualifications, stronger links between industry and education, and more help for professionals returning to the industry after a career break.
The lack of female engineers across disciplines from computer science to chemistry is a focus of the review. The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10%, while Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead the continent with nearly 30%.
“Unless we break that psychological barrier we will have enormous problems for years to come,” Cable, the business secretary, told the Guardian. “Half of all state schools don’t have a single girl doing physics. We are only tapping half the population.”
The Perkins review finds that parents are crucial in encouraging an interest in engineering, but that parents of girls are more likely to approve of careers in the arts, medicine or teaching. The review notes that while take-up of science GCSEs has improved, a gender gap has opened up at A-level, where only 30% of further maths candidates are female. At undergraduate level, only 15%-16% of engineering applicants are women.
The review describes how a growing, changing economy will generate yet more demand for engineers. “There have been dozens of government reports, select committees and independent reviews into the future of engineering skills over the past 150 years. It is time for concerted action by the profession, industry and government.”
Cable added: “One of the biggest areas of scarcity is computer science, yet computer science has the largest incidence of graduate unemployment – which suggests some colleges are not helping people find employment.”
Facebook, which employs 70 engineers in its London office, has joined the Tomorrow’s Engineers campaign. Simon Milner, its director of policy for the UK and Ireland, said engineers were the company’s rock stars. The site Glassdoor indicates that engineers’ salaries range between £50,000 and £150,000.
“They are the most important people we have here,” he said. “I love talking to young people who are enthusiastic about Facebook, and I use that to encourage them into engineering.”
Milner said the US did not have the same problem, partly because of the sophisticated and mature relationships between industry and education.
“The big Silicon Valley tech companies create their own magnetic force, so you see great computer science courses in the big US universities and the draw of those companies creates its own dynamic. We don’t have those bases so we have a problem recruiting in the UK.
“Maybe we should talk about engineers having the X Factor – only there’s a much greater chance of being a winner.”
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