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Engineering needs girl power

WORKING MUM: Nike Amiaka

THE LACK of engineers in Britain is hurting the economy, leading to suggestions that more women should be encouraged to pursue careers in the field as a possible solution to fill the demand.

According to the European Association for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, in 2010/11 only 5.5 per cent of engineers were female. The number enrolled in engineering apprenticeships was less than four per cent.

Although the shortage of women in the profession is a worldwide challenge, UK figures are said to be the lowest in Europe – a crisis that many blame on the field’s reputation as a man’s game.

The three-day World Engineering Summit (Sep 11-13) that took place in Singapore – attended by accomplished female engineers – brought this challenge to the fore.

One of the prominent speakers at the event is Dr Marlene Kanga, the national president of Engineers Australia.
She told The Voice: “It is a myth that engineering is all about hard hats and big boots. Few people realise that almost everything they use and their man made environments are the result of the work of engineers.

“It is a very creative and intellectually challenging profession and offers a varied and satisfying career for men and women. There is a critical shortage of engineers needed to solve the many problems of the world including energy, resource shortages, water security, climate change to name a few.”

Engineering UK has predicted that demand for engineers will surge due to a growing need for new technologies and renewable energy.

Between 2010 and 2020, engineering companies are projected to create some 2.74 million job openings, of which 1.86 million will be workers who are likely to need engineering skills.

However, Kanga is suggesting as a remedy that governments “needed to encourage students in school to study subjects of maths and science and to consider engineering as a career.”

She added: “Women are studying engineering in increasing numbers in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. It is a myth that it is a male dominated profession. For example, more than 50 per cent of engineering graduates in Kuwait are women.”

VETERAN: Abigail Kiernan

Nigerian-born Nike Amiaka, 36, of south London, knew she wanted to be an engineer from a very young age.

She said: “In Nigeria, by 14 years old, you are split into different classes, either the sciences, arts or business and commercial.

“The oil industry in Nigeria is a very lucrative, so most kids are good at sciences and want to be engineers. All of your uncles and aunties around you are role models.”

Amiaka agreed there needed to be stronger emphasis on maths and science in primary schools.

“Here [in Britain] we are a nation of finance, musicians and footballers. Our children don’t get to see engineers or scientists to aspire to,” she said.

The mother-of-two believes that changing the perception of science and maths as being “boring” would help as well as “educating children when they are young, so they know what the difference is between a chemical or civil engineer.”

Evidence of this can be seen from as early as the secondary school level where a large gender imbalance can be seen in the take up of A-level physics, for example. In 2012, only 21 per cent of physics A-level students were female and only 15 per cent took up technology and engineering related degrees.

Amiaka added: “It’s a great career for women, and is manageable if you want to have a family; it’s not as difficult to get into unlike other careers such as banking.”

Yet the job prospects of a career in engineering are not being conveyed effectively, industry leaders complained. They want career advisors to take on the responsibility of raising awareness.

Abigail Kiernan, 38, from Blackburn, has 16 years experience in the industry and recalled her experience at school.
She said: “I wanted to be a civil engineer but when I asked for work experience in the field, they got me a role as a [secretary].

She added: “It was at British Gas, which was a plus. While I was there I told them that I wanted to be an engineer and they set me up with someone.”

Madiha El Mehelmy Kotb, president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, added: “Whereas the industry’s reputation might be one factor of the equation, the biggest barrier is at school level.

“We need to be doing a better job promoting the engineering profession as an exciting and attractive one, which it truly is, so that it becomes an appealing choice, one to be considered by women and especially those from underserved minorities.”

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