Engineering can be a cool career choice – but ingrained biases mean that girls don’t always agree. One solution is to grab their attention between the ages of 11 and 14; it’s the prime time to turn their perceptions around

Women have made great strides in the workforce on many fronts in the past few decades, yet in engineering it can seem as if time is standing still. Seven per cent of the engineering workforce in the UK is female, the lowest in the EU, and although employers such as Network Rail have
been trying to narrow the gap (we have a 14 per cent female workforce), much remains to be done.

Our industry needs to be prepared to look into the formative years of the nation’s girls to see how we can help combat stubborn stereotypes.

Earlier this year we worked with child psychologists and found that between the ages of 7 and 15 a number of different biases, conscious and unconscious, take hold.

Between the ages of 7 and 9, the feeling was that engineering was dirty and messy; between 10 and 12, that it was dangerous; and between 13 and 15, doubtless as teenagerdom arrives, the worry was that it was unsocial and unglamorous.

Dr Simon Moore, who led the research, told us the prime opportunity to turn perceptions around is between the ages of 11 and 14 – the point at which girls’ career interests have shifted towards more technical careers but are not yet hardened by ingrained biases.

However, if those biases remain beyond 14, girls are at risk of switching off for good from the idea of engineering.

What can engineering employers do about this?

Make better use of resources

We have access to the greatest group of role models you could ask for – brilliant, talented, and skilful women who manage huge infrastructure projects. These wonderful women are equally comfortable holding their own and presenting complex plans to a room full of senior executives, as they are directing a pre-dominantly male construction site.

Someone like chief mechanical engineer Kamini Edgely, who at 26 was managing a team of 60 engineers on the upgrade of the West Coast main line running from Glasgow to London Euston, cannot help but to impress girls of a certain age who are looking for confident women to emulate.

At an event we held for schoolgirls at our York training centre in the summer, we noticed how well they responded to female engineers such as Kamini who came to talk to them; women who spend their days in charge of large, highly skilled teams and working with leading edge machinery are impressively self-assured. There can be a touch of cool to female engineering careers, and deployed at the right time in a schoolgirl’s life this can be a powerful weapon.

We need more events of this sort where girls can meet role models and envisage themselves in those roles.

Find a way to emphasise the social value of engineering

Our research discovered that when you started framing what engineers do in terms of being helpful, or solving problems – a rail engineer “helps” by doing everything from getting a nation to work on time to stopping people spilling their coffee as a train goes over points – engineering is much more attractive.

Much of the solution lies in how we position the question to our girls.

We do not need to ask them to choose between wading through grease and oil, or being good at sciences or walking down a catwalk. Nor do we need to be forcing girls into technical classes for the sake of it. Rather we need to be asking girls “do you want to be socially useful” and showing them engineering as a way of doing that. Network Rail’s new Barclays-sponsored work experience programme and our national careers advice work will be structured to make the range of possibilities clearer.

Our industry needs to step up to the plate in challenging stereotypes that have no place in the 21st century. Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne recently publicly pledged to address the “macho culture” of the rail industry, in order to improve perceptions for the better both within it rail and externally.

We need to switch on now to getting girls into engineering – or face losing their talent forever.

For further information on opportunities at Network Rail visit www.networkrail.co.uk/careers or contact us at advanced@networkrail.co.uk