Written by Kerrine Bryan
I have worked as an electrical engineer for eleven years, and on the multiple projects that I have worked, with teams of up to 200 engineers, you could probably count the female engineers on one hand.
At the same time, the UK has been struggling to meet the demand for skilled STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) professionals, and one of the causes is plain and clear. We are missing out on nearly 50% of the population; women.
Why aren’t more women opting for what I find to be an enjoyable and rewarding career?
I would like to say that I always wanted to be an engineer, but the reality is that as a child I didn’t know what engineering was. I had an idea in my head of what it involved and it just didn’t seem like something I would want to do. I thought of it as a job only for men, working in a garage wearing overalls and a hard-hat – no thank you.
Luckily for me at 17, my maths teacher suggested I take part in a university taster course to learn about the different types of engineering after which I pursued an engineering career ending up in a job that I thoroughly enjoy and is the complete opposite of what I initially thought. It’s not a job only for men, I work in an office and I like to wear a dress (and sometimes heels). It’s a creative and challenging job that I thoroughly enjoy and find rewarding.
STEM professions are struggling with image perceptions. Ask someone to draw a scientist and they will most likely draw a white man with long frizzy white hair, spectacles and a white lab coat.
If young boys believe that engineering is a job for men, who work in a garage wearing overalls and a hard-hat, then they might not think that it’s a job for them, but at least they would think it was an option. Many young girls may not even think that it’s an option if that is the case.
As a young girl I had never met an engineer, so these ideas of what an engineer was, had formed in my mind from my social environment, including media and the main influencers in my life (e.g. parents and teachers). This social influence formed my unconscious bias and is one of the reasons why not many women are opting for STEM careers.
I spent a full day at a primary school doing workshops and talking about different professions that both men and women can do, including my own profession, electrical engineering. At the end of the day I opened the floor for questions when a young boy asked me “What made you think that you could do a man’s job?”
He had spent the day learning all about the things that both boys and girls can do, but he had already fallen into the gender bias trap. His unconscious bias about what men and women can do had already formed; probably from influences outside of the school environment. It was going to take more than a full day workshop to help him out of the gender bias trap. How do we conquer the gender bias trap?
Some steps are gradually being made in the formal learning environment to reduce gender bias, however the only way to stop children falling into the trap is to ensure that these steps are being reinforced in the home environment as well.
Parents and tutors are key influencers. They may have already formed their own unconscious biases, which are tricky to tackle, but they can address their conscious bias when communicating with children.
1. Buy the right books
Expose children to diverse literature showing female engineers, male nurses or female pilots, for example. If you notice gender bias in books be sure to address it or adapt the story as necessary.
Tutors can also try to pick books and teaching resources with minimum gender bias. If it’s hard to find such literature or examples, then adapt them by changing names or create your own. Instead of Tom having 4 toy cars and giving 2 to Peter, maybe he can give 2 to Sarah.
Try to use gender neutral language when speaking with children in general terms, for example use police officer instead of policeman or flight attendant instead of stewardess.
I asked my nephew what job his dad did and he replied “He’s an engineer”, when I asked him what his mum did he paused then said “She’s mummy”.
Both of his parents are engineers. Until I asked him this question his parents hadn’t realised how their communication with him had already formed a bias. A simple exercise, such as both parents talking to a child about what they do inside and outside of the home can even make a difference.
You may be asking yourself, is this all a bit too much? I don't think so. All children should be aware of all of the opportunities and options that are available to them when they are older. By avoiding the trap, the world is their oyster.
About the author
Kerrine is an award winning chartered electrical engineer, who was most recently listed as one of the Telegraph’s Top 50 Women in Engineering 2017.
She is the founder and author of Butterfly Books, publishing career themed children’s picture books, including ‘My Mummy is an Engineer’, ‘My Mummy is a Plumber’ and ‘My Mummy is a Scientist’.