The Royal Academy commissioned a report called 'Thinking like an engineer' and the research identified that children are ‘natural born’ engineers. They already take an interest in materials in the world around them: they build structures with cardboard boxes and then wonder what happens when extra weight is added. In many ways, the formal education system quashes some of that creativity and imagination. That’s why design projects in primary schools are so important – to encourage that way of thinking, as by the time students reach their teenage years, it’s often too late to change their perceptions.
We can break down the stereotypes associated with engineering in a number of ways, but we could do with some more great images to start. Photographs that just show people in hard hats give the impression that most engineering jobs are on a construction site or in a refinery – and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Engineers do plenty of other things – they work indoors, in teams, with technology, in a laboratory – I just don’t think we have enough images that portray what many engineers actually do.
This is one of our major problems. In the 'Create the future' report from the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, interest among women for engineering came out at 28% in the UK, compared with 58% among men. But that’s a better statistic than the number of women in the profession which is around just 7%. Girls tend to give up physics too early in school – and although you can pursue engineering without taking physics, it means there is more work to be made up. Somehow, physics seems to be labelled as ‘not for girls’ and I don’t know why.
The UK has a very strong engineering tradition – think of Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Robert Stephenson or other Victorian gentlemen. There were no women in engineering at that time. If a country has come to engineering later – in the 20th century – then those gender biases may not exist. In emerging economies such as India or China, many more women recognise the field as offering a good career, without any historical stereotypes attached.
Especially after their second baby, there has been a tendency not to return to engineering careers, we’ve found. The Academy has created a diversity leadership group with senior representatives from a range of companies who are sharing best practice and making changes in their companies. When I meet women who are working in a more flexible environment, with options to go part-time or be home-based, they are very committed to their roles – and, of course, good employment practices benefit all employees, both men and women.
We see women flooding into medicine these days, possibly because it’s a more ‘visible’ profession and people feel they want to make a difference in others’ lives. But, there’s a strand of bio-engineering for example, where you can do just that. This year’s winner of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, Dr Robert Langer, is best known for his work on how to deliver large molecular drugs to targeted areas in the body to treat diseases such as cancer. That work is thought to have improved two billion lives. So, engineering can revolutionise healthcare – and that’s not something the average teenager will consider when making career choices.
We already have an immediate skills crisis. At the moment in the UK, we are only producing around half of what the country needs in engineering skills and, as a result, some companies are moving their work overseas. Projections are that this ‘gap’ will get worse and we need a carefully targeted 50% increase in engineering graduates to plug it. Industry has an important role to play in raising the profile of interesting jobs that make a difference in the world – and they’re well paid.
I knew that engineering wasn’t remote or scary because of my father’s job, but I’d always had an interest in the world around me anyway. I like to know how things work; as a child I would take things apart to see how they worked – I couldn’t always get them back together though. When I was around nine or 10-years-old, I remember a science teacher having a considerable influence on me, as he’d bring everyday objects into class and explained how they worked. I just enjoyed science and have always been interested in the many ways it can be applied by engineers. I think enjoyment counts for a lot.