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Representation of Women in the Engineering Sector

Representation of Women in the Engineering Sector


The UK’s engineering sector currently represents approximately 19% of the working population and branches out into a plethora of different sub-sectors such as civil, manufacturing, environmental and automotive. Yet despite the abundance of opportunities that should be available, the sector is unfortunately notorious for having a lack of gender diversity, along with being plagued by a skills shortage.


In 2019, a report was produced by Inclusive Boards (IB) which analysed the diversity makeup of the engineering sector. In terms of gender, it was found that in the top 100 engineering firms (by revenue), women made up 18.5% of Board members and executives meaning that 32 of these companies had no female representation at this level. Taking the top 500 firms into account, 209 (41.8%) didn’t have any women in either a Board or executive role. The outcome appeared to be similarly bleak when looking at ethnicity, with only 5.7% of Board and executive positions being held by BAME individuals. Reviewing the sector on a wider scale, the BAME share of board and executive positions stood at 5.5% – meaning 365 out of 500 organisations had no representation in this area. Of the organisations that did, women from ethnic minority backgrounds accounted for 18.2% of BAME members and on the whole, only made up 1%. With both of these diversity strands, 156 of 500 firms were found to be made up entirely of white men at the senior leadership level. The average age of those holding Board positions stood at 55, with the youngest employee being 33 and the oldest 81.


EngineeringUK is a not-for-profit organisation which operates with a view to improving diversity within the field of engineering as well as encouraging young people to look towards a career in the sector, thereby providing a solution to the ongoing skills shortage. The organisation has announced an updated follow up report on the subject which is due to be published in Autumn 2021. In terms of gender diversity, early analysis from this publication has found that the total number of women with an engineering profession in Q2 of 2016 was 721,586 – a figure which saw a 25.7% increase between then and Q2 of 2020, becoming 906,785. Speaking publicly about the result, Dr Hilary Leevers, Chief Executive for EngineeringUK remarked, “It’s encouraging to see nearly 200,000 more women working in engineering over the last four years. Nevertheless, the fact that women only make up 14.5% of those working in engineering is a serious concern. Women make up half the population but we draw on such a small proportion of their talent – we, and the engineering sector as a whole, need to work harder to drive change.”


The issue of gender diversity within the engineering sector is thought to begin during education and continues to decline throughout. Statistics published by EngineeringUK in 2018 show that 46.4% of girls aged 11-14 would consider a career in engineering, compared to 66% of boys. Both figures decrease as children age, but this is particularly pronounced in girls – as an example, only 22% of A Level Physics students are female. This decline in representation continues into higher education and apprenticeships – 18% of higher apprentices in engineering and manufacturing are women who also only made up a meager 7.4% of engineering apprentices (apprenticeships level from 2-7, with higher apprenticeships which offer the equivalent of a degree falling at level 5).


Despite these numbers, it seems that female engineering graduates are generally more successful than their male counterparts. Further research conducted by the organisation showed that in 2018, 79.8% of female engineering students received a First or Upper Second as opposed to 74.6% of male students.


Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM) is an educational curriculum which acts as a gateway for students to enter the field of engineering from a young age. According to UCAS, the amount of female students being accepted into full-time STEM undergraduate courses has risen by 49% between 2010 and 2020. Chief Executive for UCAS, Clare Marchant has said, “There are a lot of factors that go into what subjects students choose. It is pleasing to see that they are responding to economic cues with increased demand for subjects like engineering”. In order to further support STEM, the Department of Education created an online platform with the intention of assisting students with the transitions through different stages of education, introduced an £84 million programme to enhance computing and established the Teaching for Mastery programme in relation to the subject of mathematics.


As previously mentioned, the number of women who have taken up a career in the sector has increased, partly due to a result of gender roles within society as a whole gradually being quashed. There is also an increasing shift in attitudes towards parental leave which better supports working parents of all genders. In 2015, the government implemented Shared Parental Leave and Statutory Shared Parental Leave, which allows individuals to share maternity leave with their partner. Although there is still progress to be made in this regard, it certainly helps to level the playing field in engineering. Additionally, returnship programmes which were introduced in 2014 are short-term, paid internships. They provide assistance to those who have taken an extended amount of time away from employment who wish to be reintegrated into the routines and activities that form daily work life. They can also help to boost confidence that might have waned whilst outside of the workplace. The founder of Stem Returners, Natalie Desty commented, “It allows line managers to see for themselves that returning employees are just as capable after a break, and also opens minds to flexible and home-working options, which benefits everybody”.


In October 2019, IB held a conference regarding women in engineering leadership roles which was hosted by Dr Jan Peters, an expert in gender and diversity difficulties within STEM. Featuring 12 guest speakers including Loraine Martins MBE (Director of D&I with Network Rail) and Sara Poxon (Head of Operations with Rolls Royce Electrical), attendees were given a unique opportunity to learn first-hand from individuals who have helped to increase the representation of women in engineering. Discussing the most effective practices for encouraging women to take up leadership positions and the best ways in which to strengthen networks within the sector were a significant part of the day’s agenda.


The day also saw the release of IB’s report Engineering A Better Future, and The 100 Most Influential Women in Engineering List, compiled in collaboration with the Financial Times. The criteria focused on those in the industry who are well respected within the field and hold influence over the day to day operations of their respective companies. Lists such as this place women who work in engineering in the spotlight. This promotion will hopefully inspire others to embark on a similar career path, thus further improving gender diversity. Dr Alice Maynard CBE who is a non-executive director for Tube Lines Limited, Dr Hayatuun Sillem, CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering and Vinita Marwaha who is a Space Operations Engineer with Rocket Women are but a fraction of the inspiring role models of which the 100 most influential women in engineering list is comprised.


Initiatives such as IB’s Executive Leadership Programmes are making strides towards increasing the number of women at senior levels in the UK’s field of engineering. Continuing to make attempts to allow for more diversity in the engineering sector will both improve the representation of diverse individuals and help to satisfy the ongoing demand for much needed skills which will see the sector flourish.