It’s well documented that UK manufacturing is facing two major issues, the looming skills shortage and the shrinking number of women in the industry. The two might seem like separate concerns, but they are intrinsically linked.
The low number of females working in the manufacturing industry has of course been widely reported on, but the question must be asked why, in the 21st century, this problem still exists? It comes down to a number of things:
- Limited take-up of relevant science, maths and technology subjects
- The low social status of engineering compared with other professions
- The ‘oily rags’ misconception that it’s a dirty job that largely involves fixing engines
- The lingering myth that engineering is ‘not for girls (1)
- The lack of on-the-job training available to young female engineers
The current picture
The issue of women in manufacturing isn’t just anecdotal, there are statistics that show just how much of a concern it currently is. According to the Women’s Engineering Society, only six per cent of the engineering workforce in UK is female, 5.5 per cent of engineering professionals are female and just 27 per cent of engineering and science technicians are women (2).
However, recent strides must be emphasised, with a recent report published by EEF showing how there are positive trends starting to develop. It reports that all 28 FTSE 100 manufacturing companies now have female board representation, compared to 2011 when only 12.5 per cent of these organisations had females on their boards (3). This shows that improvements are being made, but more can be done.
With the help of organisations like Women in Manufacturing and publications like Women in Engineering, the issue is becoming far more publicised than ever before, and that can only be a good thing. Women in Manufacturing, a non-for-profit organisation, highlights the importance of having more females in the industry and champions how companies can benefit from their perspectives and skills. Works Management magazine’s own Females in Factories campaign is also receiving widespread support.
There are successful courses and schemes that are helping to tackle the issue, including Shell’s, which is a one-year course for girls aged 14 to 16. The course is designed to build STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and show young women that working in the oil and gas industry can include a variety of different jobs. The outcome? Shell’s graduate intake of female technical employees is at 36 per cent and its overall graduate recruitment of women is at 35 per cent (1).
For the last 15 years, missile manufacturer MBDA has insisted that half the students and schoolchildren on its educational programmes are female. The company now has 43 engineering apprentices, 23 of whom are female, while 16 out of its 20 business apprentices are female. Compare this to the two per cent of female apprentices reported by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) 2013 and you can see that what MBDA do is incredibly valuable to the industry (1).
What needs to be done?
As with the skills shortage, there needs to be more done at primary and secondary school level to encourage females to choose manufacturing as a career path. The incorrect and unfair image of the industry, of doing hard graft for low pay, needs to be amended so that all young people, both male and female, are shown just how innovating, exciting and rewarding the sector is. With manufacturing now driving the economy’s recovery the importance of the sector should be strongly emphasised.
Young women need to be targeted before they make their GCSE and A-level decisions so they are aware of the advantages of studying science, engineering and technology.
The problem also exists at graduate level. Only 16 per cent of engineering students are women, and while just under a third of male first-degree graduates take jobs outside of engineering and technology occupations, almost half of women abandon the sector(1).
Work cultures need to changed too. Manufacturing workplaces have come a long way in the last few decades, but more needs to be done to incorporate females. An article in Women in Engineering cites an example where a woman’s company didn’t have the key to the ladies’ toilets, so she was forced to use the men’s (1). Equal pay remains an issue in numerous industries and must change.
The encouraging thing is that industries today are incomparable to thirty years ago, and we can expect this trend to continue.
At the end of it all we need to remind ourselves why increasing the number of women in manufacturing is so important. Of course it comes down to equality and the need to banish sexism from the industry, but it’s also crucial if we’re going to overcome the skills shortage. We’re currently missing out on the best part of 50 per cent of the population, and if more women choose manufacturing as a career path companies will have a far bigger pool of prospective employees to pick from. Higher numbers of employees will promote increased competitiveness as they seek further education and training, and the quality of UK manufacturing will increase even further.