Debates between Lord Mair and Baroness Scott of Bybrook during the 2019 Parliament

International Women’s Day

Debate between Lord Mair and Baroness Scott of Bybrook
Friday 10th March 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook
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That this House takes note of International Women’s Day and steps to support the education of women and girls in the United Kingdom and worldwide.

Lord Mair Portrait Lord Mair (CB)
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My Lords, I will take the opportunity of this International Women’s Day to emphasise the vital importance of educating and attracting more women and girls into engineering.

The UK has a real shortage of engineers and there is a pressing need to diversify our engineering workforce. According to recent analysis by EngineeringUK, only around 15% of engineers are women. The supply of UK engineering skills has largely stagnated in recent years. In higher education, the proportion of students studying it has remained at around 5% for 15 years. UCAS data on university application and acceptance figures for the 2020 cycle shows that women represent just 18% and 16% of accepted applications to engineering and computing degrees respectively. At the current rate of progress, gender parity among entrants to engineering degrees will not be achieved until 2085. The number of young people starting engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships has also been in decline.

The UK is not unique in this. There is a global skills shortage in engineering; there are simply not enough engineers to tackle pressing global challenges, such as climate change. Engineers play a hugely important role in shaping the world we live in, not least in the engineering response to the Covid-19 pandemic and in helping us reach net zero emissions by 2050, so it is even more important that the engineering profession reflects the whole society it seeks to serve.

Over the last five years, the Royal Academy of Engineering has made it a particular mission to show what engineers and engineering really look like, changing public perceptions of engineering and inspiring a new generation to choose it as a career. The academy’s digital This is Engineering campaign aims to inspire young people from all backgrounds to consider engineering as a career.

The All-Party Parliamentary Engineering Group, the APPEG, is very active in inspiring young people about engineering. I declare an interest as its co-chair, along with Laurence Robertson MP. Sponsored by a range of engineering companies and organisations, we invite schools from all over the country to lunch events in the Cholmondeley Room here in the Lords. Typically, each event is attended by about 100 schoolchildren, all doing A-levels in sciences. Around 50% of them are girls. Each event covers a different engineering subject and brief presentations are made by three practising engineers, two of whom are usually young women. There is plenty of time for questions, and there are always many from the schoolchildren.

Recent APPEG events have covered a wide range of topics: engineering for disaster relief in developing countries; engineering for the space industry; engineering for the food industry; and, most recently, the engineering of skyscrapers. The feedback from the schoolchildren at these events has been superb. All of them have had their eyes opened to the huge variety of opportunities in engineering, particularly the girls, and many of them resolve to apply to engineering courses at university.

Progress in engaging young girls in technical subjects is steadily being made, albeit slowly. A 2022 report from EngineeringUK, Women in Engineering, found that around 15% of those working in engineering are women, compared with around 10% in 2010. This proportion is still much too small, but at least it is increasing. The engineering sector is aiming for 30% of the workforce being female by 2030, which is not high enough but would be a substantial improvement.

How should the education of girls change to achieve further improvement? The real barrier to girls entering the engineering profession is perception. At a very young age, peer pressure has a strong influence on what girls decide to study. Many girls miss out because they perceive that engineering is about only machinery or hard hats and construction—apparently subjects only for boys—and they do not want to be thought of as the odd one out. This perception of engineering as a boy’s subject is also widely held by parents and many teachers. In fact, engineering is very much wider than machinery or hard hats and construction. It is simply applied science, and covers a huge range of subjects, including building the net-zero world of tomorrow— ranging from biotech to environmental solutions, and from innovative new materials to novel energy systems such as hydrogen. These subjects are all very creative and potentially very attractive to girls.

Arguably, the misperceptions about engineering are already there by the time a girl reaches secondary school. Education about science and technology should really begin at primary school age. Primary Engineer, an organisation founded in 2005 by Dr Susan Scurlock, does just this. Each year, it engages around 4,000 teachers, 60,000 pupils and 1,500 engineers from hundreds of companies. When children as young as three and four are exposed to exciting engineering, they become inspired. Importantly, when engineering is offered at such an early age, gender is hardly an issue—not only can girls be engineers but the boys know that girls can be engineers.

Inspiring girls about STEM subjects, especially at primary school level, is all important. We must make it an urgent priority to provide many more girls with the skills needed for the exciting, highly varied and fulfilling world of engineering. They are the future, and have so much to offer.