It is 34 years almost to the day since I walked into Imperial College as an undergraduate student of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the tender age of 19.
What that first day involved was sitting in a lecture theatre with overwhelmingly white, male and privately-educated peers to learn “our” college song in an atmosphere which I now recognise as a public school debating society. Having grown up in the socialist state of Newcastle upon Tyne, I was annoyed, a little intimidated but not daunted.
I knew that I was part of an advance guard of what would soon be an army of female engineers and that just as in medicine and the law—professions which had been traditionally male—engineering would become increasingly gender balanced.
Back then 12 per cent of my fellow students were women. Today while women now make up 43 per cent of GPs and about half of solicitors, the proportion of female engineering students has barely increased. Engineering in the UK has the lowest representation of women in Europe—10 per cent.
So what are we doing wrong and how can we fix it?
Studies show that teenagers, especially girls, are more likely to engage with science and engineering if they have “science capital” in their lives. This is often about who you know. If you have parents or relatives who work in science you will have a head start in understanding what Stem really means and what science jobs are really like.
I knew I wanted to be an engineer from a young age but I had no real role models to inspire me—there weren’t any scientists on the council estate where I grew up. Luckily, I benefitted from great teachers at my local state schools who supported me in my choices and helped me to understand that girls could be just as good at maths as boys.
We need to encourage and equip teachers so that they can make this difference, providing experience and knowledge of science to children who haven’t inherited it from their parents. Unfortunately the government simply hasn’t been doing this in recent years. Instead they’ve cut school budgets which has impacted specialist Stem teaching and careers advice in particular. It’s now the case that working-class pupils are less likely to have specialist science teachers in school, will do up to 25 per cent worse than their middle-class peers, and are less likely to study engineering as a consequence. Labour would reverse Tory cuts to schools, and our National Education Service will ensure high-quality science education is available to women and girls of all ages.
We also need to change the image that science is not creative, that it is too difficult or inaccessible for young people. I get annoyed when I hear television or radio programmes where people are asked questions like, “Did you do something creative or did you want to go into science?” Perhaps we need a television series about a top woman scientist or engineer—and maybe Jodie Whittaker in the new Doctor Who will give us this.
As well as role models in the classroom and the media, we need to build bridges between schools and industry. There are fantastic groups already doing this—the Association for BME Engineers, for example—but we need the government to play a role too and when I raised this in parliament earlier in the year I was disappointed by the complacency of the government’s response.
Finally, going beyond schools, we need a sector-wide approach to get more women into engineering. Therefore the next Labour government will introduce a Diversity Charter Challenge to ensure all companies and sectors take diversity seriously. This will involve tying diversity targets to salary and rewards, ensuring that diversity is embedded in everyday practice.
I’m clear that diversity is not an optional add-on—it is an economic imperative. That was true throughout my two-decade career as a professional telecommunications engineer. It is even truer now that technology has become such an everyday part of everyone’s lives. As Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation it is my job to make this a reality—and to make it clear to all women and girls that engineering is for everyone.
Find Prospect’s full skills report here