Stereotypes run deep. Let’s change them

Changing the perception that engineering is a job for the boys will take time, team effort and sustained commitment

Figures compiled by the Women’s Engineering Society tell a shocking story about gender stereotyping in the UK.

  • Only 7 per cent of the engineering workforce is female.
  • Only 3.4 per cent of engineering and manufacturing apprentices are female.
  • The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe – less than 10 per cent.

It’s easy to fall back on old excuses such as “it’s nature, not nurture”. But at birth, boys’ and girls’ brains are remarkably alike. Furthermore, brains remain plastic, more adaptable, for a lot longer than we used to believe.

So let’s look at the way we nurture children in the UK.

Stereotyping starts at birth: pink clothes, blue clothes; girls’ toys, boys’ toys. Staff in early years education are well aware of the dangers and I have no doubt that they encourage both boys and girls to enjoy creative and constructive forms of play.

Nevertheless, society continues to have a powerful influence. Children distinguish between girls’ and boys’ jobs as early as Year 3, and by the age of 10, many girls have ruled out engineering as a career.

One of the most insidious risks is “stereotype threat”. Society has decided that boys are better than girls at certain things, and vice versa. And if girls expect to perform less well than boys, they probably will.

Researchers proved this by setting a maths test. One group of students was told that men always perform better than women, while the other group was told men and women perform equally well. In the first group – but not the second – men outperformed women by a wide margin. The experiment has been replicated hundreds of times.

Stereotype threat is one reason girls and boys choose particular subjects at secondary school. In design and technology, for example, girls expect to do better in textiles and food tech than in resistant materials or electronics. Coupled with gender-biased perceptions of careers, this has a strong influence on course choices.

So what do we do about it?

First, girls need to know about the stereotype threat. It’s like being inoculated: if girls know about the threat, they can make the right mental adjustments. Teachers need to tell girls – repeatedly – that girls and boys are capable of achieving similar results in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

Second, we need more hands-on learning to support engineering and technology skills. Schools can buy a robot duck kit, an ideal introduction to electronics for children in key stages 2 and 3, for about £5.

Later on, we need more projects created in partnership with engineering professionals. This is at the heart of the curriculum in University Technical Colleges. Rolls-Royce and Siemens have worked with teachers to create real-world projects that combine theory and practice and use the latest technology. Smaller companies are involved, too, as are NHS trusts, which employ large numbers of technicians and engineers. Studio schools and some specialist academies also build their curriculum around links such as these.

Third, we need to show that it’s perfectly normal for women to work in engineering.

That isn’t enough on its own. For the maximum impact, girls need to see women working in settled and successful mixed gender teams in an environment that is safe, clean, friendly and supportive. And they need to see engineering in all its forms, from robotics to civil engineering, and from food manufacturing to aerospace.

Finally, stereotypes run deep. Changing perceptions is a long-term project which requires team effort and sustained commitment.

There are some fantastic initiatives to encourage girls to consider careers in science, engineering and technology. To give just one example, Reading University Technical College has set up a WISE Hub to work with primary schools: we need to get behind cross-age, cross-curricular partnerships such as this – and stick with them for the next five years.

* Statistics compiled by the Women’s Engineering Society

** Women into Science and Engineering


David Harbourne is Director of policy and research at the Edge Foundation

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  1. There are lots of good suggestions here…but engineering and men will need to work harder to change and welcome the girls and women. The UTCs are being pro-active and some are doing good outreach. But at the moment there is too much focus on telling the girls and women (and teachers)to change – this is up to commitment from everyone. It is not just education. What are engineers doing to change their cultures and their attitudes? What are they doing to keep the women engineers they have and to support their careers?