The truth about women in science and engineering


Elrica Degirmen, is a second year physics student at the University of Leeds. Here she provides her account of being a woman in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

scienceSomehow, I stumbled upon an article on the WeAreTheCity’s website where they reported that the IET has complained that only nine per cent of the engineering workforce are women.

It is not that difficult to browse through the internet to see the supposed reasons as to why the figure is seen to be so low. However, I think the issue runs deeper than women are put off from having a career in engineering or because there is a lack of female role models in the industry. In fact, I think it has nothing to do with that.

I am currently a physics undergraduate and I personally want to work in the fusion sector one day, be it in plasma physics, fusion materials or nuclear engineering. It is a multi-disciplinary field and I wanted to study physics for the solid foundation that I believed would help me enter into one of these three pathways into the future, irrespective of what I eventually decide in the end. As someone who has already had undergraduate research experience in national laboratories, I fail to accept the notion that the sector is not welcoming to women. This assumption that the scientific and engineering industries are off-putting to women is lacking in evidence and arguably counter-productive as it reinforces impressionable teenagers that STEM industries are sexist, when they are not.

I have a possible explanation as to the low rates of women in engineering. The normal way for one to obtain experience is to apply for engineering internships. It should be mentioned that an accredited engineering degree gives you the specific skills and knowledge that allows you to be chartered – providing you eventually fulfill all the academic requirements. Many summer internships stipulate that you must be studying an engineering subject, which automatically closes off potential applicants who may have the ambition and attitude to succeed in an engineering career, but just happened to have studied another STEM subject at eighteen. It is far harder to be chartered as an engineer if you studied a different subject at the age of eighteen.

I am aware that the Institute of Physics provides its own pathway to be chartered in engineering if you have studied physics, but even so, one has to get into the engineering industry in the first place. Thus, how does a science graduate compete with someone who already has studied engineering in the first place? The answer it seems, is pretty difficult. There are no obvious or even formalised schemes for those who are studying quantitative-heavy degrees to pursue an engineering career.

Engineering is worse compared to other sciences in terms of the proportion of women studying it. If women do not choose to study engineering, they are almost closing off their options later in life to be chartered as an engineer. Even if one decides to pursue postgraduate studies in engineering where their science qualifications are accepted, then there is the issue of finances. Engineering programmes are relatively more expensive to run, and the £10k loan recently introduced by the government can only go so far. Perhaps more funding should be directed for postgraduate engineering courses that allow science graduates to “convert”.

I feel that the profession closes off potential people, irrespective of gender, who may want to have a career in engineering, but just happened to have studied physics or computer science or even mathematics as their undergraduate degree.

I personally do not subscribe to identity politics, and I do not care about the proportions of women in whatever industry so long as the best people are working in the jobs. However, I feel it is a major distortion of the reality to suggest that women do not want to work in engineering. Even if people decide later on to pursue an engineering career, they find that it is too late because of the choices that they made whilst applying for university during school.

Perhaps it is the case that that there is a lack of awareness of what engineering is, or the value of studying engineering at university. Even so, I do not think that specific efforts to increase uptake from pupils to study engineering deals with the specific issue of many students whereby they later decide they want to do engineering.

I know that I will find it much harder to get into engineering (if I choose that as my desired career path). Not because I am female, but because I just happen to have studied physics as opposed to engineering at eighteen. Considering that only a relatively small percentage of women even take up engineering in the first place, I am shocked that the figure is as high as 9% personally as for a wide variety of factors not all those who study engineering will go on to pursue an engineering career.

In my opinion, if you are going to complain about the lack of women in the industry, you have to understand the real reasons why the statistics are as they are, rather than assuming it is owing to false claims of sexism or misogyny. Competition for a restricted number of engineering internships (which for many people is the first step to enter an engineering career) is already competitive by those who have studied engineering. The reality is that it is difficult for anyone, but if women do not make the right A-level choices at sixteen, then greatly hinder their chances of studying science and engineering at eighteen. I think it would help if there were a wider variety of routes for young people to enter engineering. I appreciate the need for vocational training schemes such as apprenticeships, and I fully support it but even then, you have to decide early on to pursue this. There seems to be only one academic route, in other words choosing to study engineering at university during sixth form.

I think that the IET, and other professional engineering institutions, should develop alternative routes for chartership for those who have not studied engineering but have studied a scientific subject. School outreach programmes are not enough, and talking about the perceived sexism in these industries is counter-productive.




Zoe Gadon-Thompson

Zoe Gadon-Thompson | Student

My journey hasn't been conventional, or easy. I under-performed in A-Levels because of struggling with depression, and didn't leave myself with many career options other than a call center job. I got pregnant at 19 with my daughter, and after returning to work when maternity leave was finished, I decided I was worth more than minimum wage. I had to do more with my life so my daughter could look up to me as a role model.

I started studying a foundation degree in software engineering (it was the only thing my qualifications could get me into!) in September 2017, and have been active in the tech community since then.

Previous to that my only experience with computers was online gaming, and in the past few years even that had fallen by the wayside.

Despite not really having started a career I've managed to become a Coder Dojo Mentor, Outreach manager at Farset Labs, Co-organiser of Code Co-Op, Co-organiser of DjangoGirls Belfast, Organiser of Belfast Tech Families.

Katie Griffiths

Katie Griffiths | Student

Katie Griffiths
My career in tech started when I began an app development course for young people, created by AppsforGood. This was my first experience with coding. Before that, I just had a perception that it was ‘nerdy’ or ‘for boys’. During Apps for Good we learned how to build prototypes of our ideas. I found it so fun and loved how it combined problem-solving and logic with creativity. After that, I would go home and create apps in my own time. I loved that I could create something really easily and could someday use it on my phone. The course helped me realise my passion for technology and inspired me to take computer science A Level. At the end of the course I, along with a team of three other girls, entered our app idea and were fortunate enough to win our category. So, six months later, we released ‘I’m Okay’ into the Google Play Store before then going on to be a winner at the TechforGood Awards (2015). I’m Okay is a support app for teenagers questioning their sexuality and gender. Teenagers can use the free app to read stories from people who have had similar experiences, understand definitions of LGTBQ terminology and access resources. The main aim of the app is to help young people see that they’re not alone - and get the answers and information that they need. The app was a finalist for the BBC Radio 1 Teen Hero Awards and since launching the app, the team and I have been featured in Wired Magazine, Virgin Unite blog and have given radio interviews to BBC Radio 1. With our most recent achievement, having been included by the Guardian Newspaper, in their list of the top 25 most powerful teenagers in the world.