Women in Engineering: Why Are the Numbers Still So Low?
In observance of International Women’s Day, we look at the current state of women in STEM education and careers, paying particular attention to the presence of women in engineering.
Since the days of the suffragette movement in the early 1900s, brave and pioneering women have been making bold strides toward a future where women and men have equal social and economic standing. This article will explore the current state of women in STEM education and careers, paying particular attention to the presence of women in engineering.
Although the number of women pursuing careers in engineering is on the rise, the gender gap remains large. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock
Percentage of Women in Engineering
According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), women comprise 28 percent of today’s STEM workforce. In engineering, the numbers are even lower. According to career-resource site Zippia, a mere 13.7 percent of women and a whopping 86.3 percent of men make up the current workforce of engineers employed in the US today.
In an extended analysis from early last year, Engineering UK reported an increase in the number of roles for women in engineering from 10.5 percent in 2010 to 16.5 percent in 2021. The number of women working in these roles increased by over 370,000, from 562,000 to 936,000, between 2010 and 2021. While these figures seem encouraging, the number of female engineers compared to male engineers is still worryingly low across the globe.
Furthermore, Engineering UK’s analysis revealed that women were more likely to be found in ‘related’ rather than ‘core’ engineering roles. Core engineering roles are those that require individuals to apply the tools and knowledge of their trade consistently. Core engineering roles include electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, civil engineers, computer science engineers, and machine operatives. Related engineering roles describe those that require a blend of engineering skills and knowledge, such as web developers, web designers, information technology technicians, and architects.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (USBLS) projects engineering and architecture jobs to increase by 4 percent between 2021 and 2031, with 91,300 new jobs expected to open up as a result. To ensure that women can access such job opportunities, they need a positive and encouraging educational and workplace environment.
Women are less likely to pursue a degree in engineering than other STEM-focused degrees. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock
STEM Women used data from the AAUW and the USBLS to take a deeper look at women in STEM education. STEM Women found that 36 percent of women achieved STEM degrees in 2018. While 68 percent of women gained their degrees in biological and life sciences, only 22 percent of women achieved bachelor's degrees in engineering and 19 percent in computer science between 2017 and 2018.
Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) showed that of around 627,000 first-year undergraduate students in 2020/2021, 38,500 were studying engineering and technology degrees. Of this minority, a small proportion were women at 18 percent, while 57 percent of women studied all other subjects, according to Engineering UK.
Before even considering an engineering degree, young aspiring students must take key subjects at core levels, typically math and physics. Another area of Engineering UK’s report revealed that only 22 percent of women took these key A-level subjects (foundational courses) among a cohort of 31,885 first-year undergraduates.
On reviewing HESA data, Engineering UK found that 12,715 (out of 55,925), or 23 percent of undergraduate men, pursued an engineering and technology degree after studying physics and/or math at A level. Comparatively, only 3,100 out of 36,870 (or 8 percent) female students that studied physics and/or math at A level went on to study engineering and technology degrees.
Encouraging women to study math and physics at core levels can open up more opportunities for studying engineering at a higher level. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock
According to Engineering UK, if these figures remain stable, 115,000 more women would need to study physics and/or maths at A level to bridge the gender gap and reach parity with the number of men studying engineering and technology.
Shifting the Balance
In a research review conducted by the AAUW, the organization highlighted that the lack of female role models in education could discourage young women from pursuing engineering careers. More prominently, the presence of implicit bias can negatively impact the advancement of women in STEM fields. Implicit bias is an unintentional and automatic form of bias that can influence behavior, judgment, and decision-making.
While the field of engineering still has a ways to go in achieving gender balance, businesses and academic institutions can continue making strides by encouraging women to pursue engineering roles and degrees and ensuring a positive and safe work/learning environment for women everywhere.