Engineering: we should change its name if we want girls to go for it

If we can’t entice girls to take up engineering – why don’t we change its name?

In the UK women make up only 22% of the nation’s engineering graduates, while a study of the industry’s gender parity  in 34 European countries, put Britain at a miserable 22nd*. Even in Scotland – a hotbed of engineering heritage – the Scottish Qualifications Authority has confirmed only 88 girls took Engineering Highers this year, compared to 941 boys.

Both Scottish and UK Governments appear unsuccessful at moving women from their girly ways into the ‘hard’ disciplines so profitably inhabited by men.

In re-focusing the economy on exportable innovation and manufacturing rather than our pre-2008 preference for contact centres and financial transactions, policymakers face the challenge of making this happen in tandem with their first great achievement – getting women out of the kitchen and into the workplace (although we’re still doing the lion’s share of childcare as well – it’s true guys).

It can’t be for the lack of Government-backed marketing campaigns; ambassador programmes and awareness initiatives focused on encouraging girls to embrace engineering. So why aren’t they working? Sure, gender stereotyping – ribbons and bows/trucks and diggers segregation is still rampant from infancy,  but is it also because the agencies charged with delivering these marketing campaigns – councils, industry groups and civil servants at large, have failed to get to the root of their product and their promotion? Is it because after years of being bullied, bored and overlooked at work themselves, the ones leading campaigns imagine young girls seek an interesting and stimulating career, whereas the average 15 year old still obstinately yearns for glamour and cash. Maybe all it requires is a more creative approach in helping girls to see that in the occupation which I’d like to be known formerly  as engineering – they could pretty much fill their boots with glamour and cash.

Let me précis – the current approach is focused on a premise that STEM subjects have hitherto been ‘hard’ boys’ subjects which 20th century girls should now consider themselves clever enough to have a go at rather than their (so far) inexportable preference for social care. It’s frequently supported by an image of a lass dressed in a boiler suit or staring at a test-tube.

What is wrong with this?

  1. Actually although income outcomes remain unequal, girls outstrip boys academically so the prospect of joining a boys’ club is ‘downskilling’ for most female S4 pupils.
  2. Marketing campaigns invariably use images of women talking aerodynamics to an MD in an industrial unit as an incentive, but most girls who have the gumption to create a new vaccine or build a bridge are more focused on the lifestyle rewards their intellect is going to deliver – we’d do better with a campaign showing a female engineering apprentice drinking vodka and lemonade in Ibiza or by urging them: ‘Become an engineer – afford Glastonbury VIP tickets every year’.
  3. We haven’t reflected technological progress in these subjects at all – much of the donkey work in science and maths is now accomplished by software, so we should be outlining a future of international travel which success in these subjects now offers, rather than the opportunity to wear protective goggles on a daily basis.
  4. The term ‘engineering’ is based on an accomplishment that is at least 200 years old – how many engineers actually work on an engine every day now? It’s still portrayed as requiring a ‘Flashdance’ ambition in girls to get covered in oil and handy with the mole wrench, whereas a degree in engineering from Strathclyde University will almost certainly guarantee them a highly paid, exciting career working in international offices from the day they graduate.

So perhaps all it might take is to re-brand engineering. Let’s call it ‘imagineering’,  ‘world-design’ or even ‘making stuff happen’. Let’s encourage girls and boys to get involved in a brand new subject dependent on brand new 2016 capabilities, one in which girls are not patronized as ‘johnny-cum-latelies’ but equal entrants in fast-moving, financially-rewarding careers and one of the best opportunities to help their country to be a world-leader.

Fans of the social scientist and author Malcom Gladwell will be familiar with his evidence for the global effects of tiny Tipping Points. Perhaps that’s where we are with engineering in Britain– we have the right zeitgeist, all we need is for one small aspect – its name – to change and we could trigger a seismic shift in female perception.

*according to a study by Intellectual Property Office

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