The business case for encouraging girls into science and engineering

When Dr. Robert Hawley was a young engineer on Tyneside, he found many exciting role models in the world of engineering and technology to inspire him on his way to the top job in Nuclear Electric. However, when a recent survey asked the public to name the country’s most popular and well-known engineer, it was not names such as Parsons, Reyrolle or Mertz that were on the nation’s lips but Kevin Webster, the local mechanic from TV’s “Coronation Street”. As Dr. Hawley commented to a recent gathering of Opportunity 2000 employers, no wonder the image of engineering is distorted in the public’s mind.

If a garage mechanic in a TV soap sums up what it means to be an engineer in nineties Britain, it’s no wonder either that at a time when women are now entering other male-dominated professions such as law and accountancy in similar numbers to men, comparatively few are choosing a career in science, engineering and technology. While it is true that between 1981 – 92, the proportion of women in the science, engineering and technology workforce rose from 8.5% to 29.5%, in 1991 women accounted for only 2-6% of employees in traditional engineering jobs, 11-12% of employees in electronics, planning and quality control jobs, 20% of chemical scientists and 33% of biological scientists.

The only occupation in which women outnumbered men in a 1991 analysis of employment within science-related sectors was that of a laboratory technician. Similarly in the engineering diabetes industry in 1990, the only job in which women outnumbered men was in clerical work. For employers in the science, engineering and technology sectors though, attracting women into their organisations is likely to become a key business challenge over the coming years.

According to labour market projections, issued by the Department for Education and Employment, Britain will have about 23.5 million women aged 16 years or over by the beginning of the next century representing nearly half (46% ) of the civilian workforce. Indeed by the year 2006, women will account for four-fifths of the projected net increase in the civilian labour force during which time the economic activity rate for men is projected to fall slightly. Employers who therefore insist on recruiting men only do so from a shrinking recruitment pool.

But it is not just the figures that are driving a growing band of employers to rethink their attitudes towards women employees. Bound up with changing trends in the employment market are employers’ changing attitudes to human resource management. As part of the move towards total quality management and in pursuit of quality standards such as Investors in People, top business leaders increasingly recognise and publicly acknowledge the difference a highly skilled workforce can make to the performance, effectiveness and competitiveness of an organisation. As a result the recruitment, retention and development of the most talented people in the workforce, including women, has moved up the boardroom agenda.

New attitudes and practices, where they have been introduced, have also highlighted the hidden costs of outdated policies. At government department, GCHQ, for example, it has been calculated that it costs £1100 to recruit a graduate, and about £92,000 for a graduate trainee project manager in the unique demands of this business. When GCHQ recently introduced flexible working patterns and allowed four women scientists to work flexibly following maternity leave, the organisation reckons to have saved some £400,000 by retaining these four talented and experienced people.

For other employers the bid to attract and retain more women employees is also tied up with efforts to improve customer service. Attitude surveys at British Gas, for example, have revealed that many female customers would often prefer to be visited in their homes by female service engineers if this were an option, while engineering company, Adwest (see case study), recognises the contribution made by female engineers to the design of, say, car-seat reclining mechanisms which have to suit the bone structures of both men and women, including pregnant women. Similarly employers such as Unilever and Rank Xerox are looking to develop more women as they move towards a culture in which diversity is valued. A diverse workforce, these companies argue, composed of men and women from a variety of different backgrounds and cultural experiences, is a more creative workforce capable of challenging old attitudes and practices and bringing fresh thinking and greater innovation to product development.

In recent years, another compelling reason for employers to pay greater attention to the female workforce is the knowledge that women are increasingly skilled and better educated, accounting for almost half of university graduates. Employers in science, engineering and technology who want to upgrade the quality of their workforces will face major problems in recruitment unless they are prepared to tackle negative attitudes to science-based professions head-on, because comparatively few of this new generation of high-achieving girls are choosing science-related careers.

As we shall see in greater detail later, comparatively few young women take science subjects at ‘A’ level, fewer still take science-based degrees and even when women do graduate in a science subject from university, they are less likely to use their degree in a related career than are their male counterparts. The absence of women from science and technology therefore becomes a spiralling problem – every time young women are called upon to make a decision that affects their career destination, they are more likely than men to reject a career in a science-related area.

If employers in science, engineering and technology (SET) hope to increase the number of high achieving young women keen to enter science it is clear they will now have to work on the “supply” side of the employment equation and set about reshaping attitudes of girls and young women towards careers in SET.

The remainder of this booklet will therefore focus on what employers can do to improve their links with educational institutions to persuade some of the nation’s most talented young women to pursue SET careers. The issues highlighted and the initiatives described are not definitive or exhaustive. Our aim is to provoke debate and stimulate new thinking among employers, educationalists and other interested parties and invite feedback on other successful employer / education initiatives which are likely to help increase the number of female engineers, scientists and technologists in British industry.