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Engineering a future beyond the stereotypes

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The following was published in the Yorkshire Post

To meet the skill requirements of the UK economy we have to interest by 2020 around 800,000 people into becoming scientists, engineers and technologists, or fall behind in the global race with its negative effects for jobs and personal earnings. It will be a challenge.

But if we are to have a hope of succeeding we have to attract girls as well as boys. At present around 9% of our engineers are female - there is no way we can generate the number of scientists and engineers we need without addressing this.

However this growing need does give us an opportunity to make South Yorkshire the first choice for young women who wish to study and work in these industries. Yorkshire’s first university technical college in Sheffield is doing just that.

Girls Making the Future

Since UTC Sheffield opened in 2013 I have been impressed that their leadership team ensured from the start that young women were encouraged to pursue careers in science, engineering and technology (SET).

However children learn early just what a ‘woman’s job’ and a ‘man’s job’ are and make choices accordingly. If girls have never seen or never heard a women inventing something or fixing something, will they dream about doing that job when older? Having role models to inspire and motivate young people to study for SET careers is vital.

UTC Sheffield get this. They have just launched a new film, Girls Making the Future, to promote career and study opportunities for young women. It features current and former female engineering students along with women who work as scientists, engineers or technologists.

One barrier to girls’ choices may be parents - research shows that they are the main influencers for a girl’s career choice. So those who view UTCs as a route to a range of masculine career opportunities are unlikely to encourage their daughters to apply. Such stereotyping limits girls’ choices. To help overcome this UTC Sheffield have developed links with groups such as Women in Science Engineering at Technology (WiSET) at Sheffield Hallam University. This group do fantastic work in raising awareness and challenging stereotypes among parents and girls. 

Making a difference

Many employers are experiencing difficulties in recruiting suitably qualified staff. They stress the need for young people to develop their understanding and gain some experience of the day-to-day demands of the workplace. The UTC have developed analytical, problem solving and leadership skills along with rigorous academic preparation which are valued by business.

More than 40 local employers support UTC Sheffield; they provide mentoring, set curriculum projects and offer work experience. Initiatives like these give students the opportunity to meet people ‘in the know’ and are invaluable. And the UTC is already reaping the benefits of this work.

440 young people are currently on their roll in total at UTC Sheffield. Of those, 78 are female - which equates to 18% of all students in total are girls - up from 14% last year.

Students start at UTC Sheffield in either Year 10 (aged 14) or Year 12 (aged 16). The achievements are particularly clear if we look at this year’s Year 10 students - of which 29.8% are girls. All of these are brand new pupils who have taken the daunting step of moving schools when most of them are only 14 years old. This is testament to the wide range of outreach work done by UTC Sheffield to persuade girls that science, engineering and technology is not just for boys.

Change in attitudes

A survey commissioned by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which involved responses from university technical colleges nationally, shows that girls at mainstream schools think boys have a much better chance of getting jobs in engineering. Just 43% saying they have the same opportunities and as a result just 3% would consider a career in engineering.

The picture is different at the UTC where 65% of girls believe they have the same job opportunities as boys in engineering. This trend continues in other male dominated sectors, including technology where 75% of girls believe they have the same job chances and in science the figure is higher still at 83%.

On my last visit to the UTC I spoke to three young women - two engineers and one creative and digital student and was encouraged by the knowledge they had of the range of careers open to them. Their enthusiasm for the future was infectious.

Britain can lead in the great discoveries and technologic advances that will determine our future. These will have a strong impact on our economic wellbeing. Engineering businesses alone have the potential to contribute an extra 27 billion to the UK economy every year from 2020.

UTC Sheffield is one institution taking a positive role in shaping the future we should all join in!


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