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'Drop physics requirement to encourage female engineers,' says IMechE president

Joseph Flaig

New IMechE president Carolyn Griffiths talks at the institution's headquarters
New IMechE president Carolyn Griffiths talks at the institution's headquarters

Mandatory physics A-Levels for budding female engineers should be reconsidered by universities to help women thrive in the industry, the new president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers has said.

Carolyn Griffiths was met with lengthy applause and words of support yesterday evening (24 May) as she called for a practical strategy to encourage and enable women in the sector during her first presidential address. Speaking at the institution’s offices in Westminster, the president focused on the skill shortage and gender imbalance facing engineering in the UK. She pledged to dedicate much of her one-year term to working proactively and collaboratively with others to find solutions to the issues.

In her speech titled “Engineering: All Change?”, the president acknowledged neither the skills shortage or gender imbalance were new. She proudly displayed a photograph of her mother at work in a factory during the Second World War, but she said the number of female engineers dropped after the war as men returned to work. The president accepted many positive changes have happened in the workplace since she started as a rail engineer in 1986, but she said there has been “nowhere near enough change, even though there have been numerous reports commissioned and recommendations made.”

Tackling the gender agenda

Teenage girls are often discouraged from pursuing a career in engineering because of initial male bias in physics lessons, the president said. The number of girls studying the topic drops progressively from GCSE level to employment, meaning only 8 % of engineers in the country are female - despite the number of women in the technology and engineering sector already doubling in the last 20 years.

“Being a lonely female in a class of boys in itself is a deterrent,” she said. “At the age of 15 or 16, self image and peer approval is as important to women today as it has ever been. In tackling the gender agenda, is this being recognised?”

The president drew attention to initiatives at University College London (UCL) and respected engineering company Dyson, where requirements for all undergraduate applicants to have studied maths or physics at A-Level have been removed. Both organisations have seen increases in the number of women studying and succeeding, and she suggested others should consider following suit.

Action must also be taken to “counter the business culture,” she said, with female engineers paid less and seen as less competent than men. The president said there are “pros and cons” to hiring quotas, but companies should instead consider mandatory training on addressing unconscious bias and “objective checking” during recruitment to make sure women are treated with the same criteria as men.

Encouraging more fathers to take paternal leave and introducing incentives for gender equality could also lead to more women in engineering, the president said. She said other institutions must work with IMechE on the gender imbalance and the skills shortage, creating a “unified message” to encourage more engineering education and inspire a new generation.

Changing perceptions is "critical"

The president’s address was warmly received by the large audience. Outgoing president Jon Hilton said it would be “a wonderful outcome” if more engineering jobs are taken by women. Speaking to Professional Engineering after the speech, former institution president Keith Millard said the focus on gender was “absolutely right”.

“I think changing perceptions of children at a young age is critical to bringing women into engineering, at 14 or 15 the deal is done,” he said. “I think they are good ideas. I think you need a huge amount of momentum to bring them into effect. She doesn’t just need this institution, she needs all institutions to get behind the programme.”


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