Female engineer in hard hat and suit, stood with arms folded smiling down at the camera

Women in engineering: What’s it like to work in a male dominated industry?

Posted on 9th December 2020 by

Engineering in the UK is predominantly considered a man’s profession, but could this be set to change?

We spoke with three female engineers, Penny, Laura and Emily, to find out more about their experience of working in a male dominated industry, how attitudes towards women in engineering are changing and why engineering can be a great career choice for more women.

It’s estimated that only 12% [1] of 465,000 [2] engineers employed in the UK are women. This gives the UK a lower percentage of female engineers than any European country.

While the number of female engineers employed in the UK has increased slightly from 9% in 2015, the number of female registered engineers in the UK has decreased during this period, from 6% to 5% [3].

Why do more men than women choose a career in engineering?

From primary school age, it’s believed that boys have a more positive view of engineering than girls.

Not only is engineering sometimes perceived as difficult, complicated and grimy, it is also deemed a ‘man’s profession’ [1], a perception that can be particularly discouraging for young girls.

Some put the low numbers of women in engineering down to a lack of awareness and a misconception of engineering not being creative.

A graph showing the percentage of girls and boys who would consider a career in engineering

Source: https://www.wes.org.uk/content/wesstatistics

Confidence in academic abilities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects, which typically lead on to a career in engineering, is thought to be lower in girls than boys which could be another factor impacting the low rates of women in the industry.

More school aged boys consider a career in engineering than girls

In a report by Engineering UK, it was found that 46% of girls age 11-14 would consider a career in engineering.

By the age of 16-18, this reduces to 25% of girls considering a career in engineering, compared to 52% of boys [3].

Girls outperform boys in engineering related subjects

Interestingly, research shows that girls perceive their capability in STEM subjects as low, despite girls outperforming boys in the majority of STEM subjects, at GCSE and A level.

Progressing onto university, girls outperform boys again.

79.8% of female engineering students get a First or Upper Second, compared to 74.6% of male students [3].

Regardless of this outperformance, boys are still far more likely to study STEM A level subjects, that lead on to a degree in engineering.

A table shows the high percentage of male students in STEM degree subjects

(Figures from Engineering UK 2020 report [1])

Promisingly, in 2019 there was an increase of 11% in girls taking chemistry and an increase of 5% in physics.

Organisations promoting women in engineering

Today, there are a growing number of organisations promoting women in engineering and increasing awareness of engineering as a career path for young women.

One of the organisations leading the way is the Women’s Engineering Society (WES).

WES are a membership society hosting engineering events and conferences across the country. WES also provide awards for inspirational engineers, raising the profile of women as technical leaders, and campaign for relevant policy change.

We spoke with engineers and WES members Penny, Laura and Emily to hear about their experience of working in the engineering industry and views on the low numbers of fellow females in the industry.

Test Engineer – Penny Hawksworth

Penny is an engineer based in Derby. She works for Hitachi Information Control Systems Europe (HICSE), a UK-based provider of software products for railway signalling and operations.

Penny’s role mainly covers the testing of new traffic management and timetable systems.

Initially, Penny did not anticipate becoming an engineer.

At university, Penny completed a degree in surveying, with the intention of joining the police graduate scheme. An injury however meant opting for plan B. This led her to working for the airline BMI.

When the airline closed, Penny was forced to change directions. This time, it was to a future in engineering.

Field Service Engineer – Laura Angel

Field Service Engineer, Laura, works for the well-known coffee brand, Costa, maintaining their express machines. Working across the south of England, Laura carries out repairs and preventative maintenance on all Costa Express equipment.

As for Penny, engineering was not Laura’s first career.

Initially, Laura worked in administrative roles before moving to engineering at the age of 23.

At age 27, Laura officially began studying engineering.

Field Service Engineer for Costa, Laura Angel, stood in front of a work van.

Software Engineer – Emily Torode

Emily works for the company Instron, who pioneer materials testing machines. Based in High Wycombe, Emily’s works as a Software Engineer, as well as doing some project management.

Emily studied Aeronautical Engineering (MEng) at university and then worked as a design engineer before getting into coding.

Emily says: “I never thought I would enjoy programming, but I did one project on it at university and really loved it. My current role combines programming and engineering which is a great fit for me.”

Why is engineering a great career choice for women?

Emily says: “A career in engineering offers you loads of transferable skills, and the chance to work in a huge range of environments.”

“What I like about engineering is being able to make positive changes to the world around me. I know how important engineering is to society and I love being a part of that.”

Penny says: “Engineering is a very varied career that touches a huge number of industries worldwide.”

“There are opportunities to work with mature technology or be at the forefront of new developments. Whatever your interests are, there will be a branch of engineering for you.”

Laura adds: “Anything can spark your imagination. For me, I love problem solving, research, development, trialling new projects, innovation and adaptation of new technologies.”

“Engineering is all around us! It never stops, that’s what’s so great about it.”

As well as offering a fulfilling career full of opportunities to develop, engineering often pays well.

A report in 2016 found that the average income of an engineer exceeded £42,000, which was 49% higher than the average earnings in the UK at the time [2].

It was also discovered that engineering graduates, from both higher education and apprenticeships, earn £5,000 more than the average salary for graduates.

Can working in a male dominated industry be uncomfortable?

Explaining her experience of working mainly around men, Emily says: “There have been times when I’ve felt a bit out of place.”

“On my first day at my last job, I was asked to help in the workshop while my computer was being set up, and one of the guys told me to go back to the office since the workshop was “too dangerous for women.”

“But I think it was just because they weren’t used to having any women there, it did get better after that! Most of the time the people I have worked with have been great and they will make sure I feel comfortable.”

For Laura, at the start of her career in engineering, being taken seriously as a woman in engineering and progressing onto a good wage was not easy.

She explains: “My journey into engineering was a tough one. I had nothing but a GCSE in Electronics, a determination to be an engineer and whole load of enthusiasm. This was enough to secure some good trainee engineering roles within the White Goods industry; however, I did find it a struggle to be taken seriously in interviews and found myself unable to move beyond a trainee role and a trainee’s wage.”

“This was still the case after 3 years’ experience in the industry.  It wasn’t until I had my first child, that I studied from home and gained a nationally recognised qualification which gave me the confidence to believe in myself and accept no less than the same wage any male engineer was earning.”

On the other hand, Penny has always felt equal in the workplace.

She says: “I’ve never experienced any negativity or been made to feel uncomfortable, quite the opposite in fact and consider myself incredibly lucky to have such great colleagues.”

“I would say it’s an industry that’s very inclusive both in and out of the workplace.”

Are attitudes towards women in engineering changing?

Sharing her thoughts, Laura says: “I believe attitudes are changing, but very slowly.”

“Even now, when I am working on a machine the general assumption is that I am doing a regular clean on the machine, rather than repairing it.”

“None of my male colleagues seem to experience the same comments from members of the public.”

Emily adds: “I think we need to look at every step of education and people’s careers.”

“It’s not just about getting women into engineering jobs, we need to keep them there too. There is still work to do to create an environment where women in engineering can thrive.”

“I would love to see more diversity in teams. At the moment I think women are still very much the minority.”

“That’s why WES is such a great resource, having female engineers supporting each other and lifting each other up really makes a difference. I am confident that things are getting better.”

Is the stereotype of engineering being a mucky role an accurate perception?

While some engineering roles are quite hands on, many are not.

Emily tells us: “Engineering covers such a broad range of things!”

“Sometimes my job has involved PPE and been quite physical, sometimes it’s doing tests in the lab, but most of the time I am in the office.”

“It suits me because I like a mix of things. I think I would get bored if I was working at a desk all day every day.”

Penny says: “Engineering is such a varied industry there is something for everyone.”

“There are hands off desk-based roles right through to the traditional hands on mucky overalls, safety boots and hard hat that many people think of.”

What needs to be done to get more women interested in engineering?

Sharing her thoughts on what can be done to get more women interested in engineering, Penny says: “I think the perception of engineering needs to be changed so people realise how broad it is and the opportunities that are available.”

“Engineering is such a very general term that encompasses many varied career paths. This is something that needs to be done early with school age children at a stage prior to them making education and career choices.”

“It’s all about exposure. A lot of people just don’t really understand what an engineering career involves. There are definitely a lot of misconceptions out there about what engineers do.”

“A lot of people think it’s about fixing cars and machines, but that’s not the case. I think a lot of people get put off by the idea of doing loads of maths as well, but really it’s a very creative field and I would love to correct that stereotype.”

“We are very influenced by what we see in society and the media, so having more female engineering role models out there makes a big difference to how people perceive engineering jobs. ‘You can’t be what you can’t see!’”

Laura adds: “I don’t think the world of engineering is advertised to the next generation as well as it could be.”

“Everything in this world is linked to a form of engineering in some way. From switching on a lightbulb, to driving a car, to stepping foot on the moon. Even the simple task of producing the perfect coffee is so greatly engineered you wouldn’t believe it.”

Breaking the stereotype

Telling us more about what led her on to working with WES, Laura says: “I have met so many women along the way, of all ages who have ‘congratulated’ me for doing the job that I do.”

“This was often followed with a, ‘I wish I could have done something like that, but it wasn’t available to us ‘in my day’.”

“It got me thinking… it wasn’t really available ‘in my day’ either. I was very fortunate to attend a school which offered a GCSE programme in Electronics – but this wasn’t the norm. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was the only school in Berkshire that did.”

“I still get this praise even now… which is lovely, but it begs the question, why is it so unusual to see a woman on the tools? Something must be going wrong somewhere! That was when I found the Women in Engineering Society… and Lottie.”

“After feeling discouraged and unfairly treated by one of my early employers I felt the need to reach out. I wanted to know if there were any other women out there who experienced the same type of discrimination. I randomly Googled ‘Women in Engineering’ and the Women’s Engineering Society was top on the results.”

“At the time WES were promoting awareness of Women in Engineering with the use of a ‘Lottie doll’. The idea behind it was to attract the attention of young children and spread awareness of the different types of engineering roles available to them.”

“The fact that Lottie is a girl and she is accompanying her female engineering friend at work sparked so much interest from customers and children asking me questions and showing an interest in the Costa machine. Not once did a child batter an eyelid at me being a female engineer or of the doll being a girl and not a boy.”

A female engineer barbie known as a 'Lottie Doll' in front of a computer screen

Lottie in action – photo by Michelle Green of FJD Consulting.

“Children do not see a male or female engineer – they just see an engineer.”

Explaining more on the workshops she has held in schools, Laura says: “I have visited schools as ‘an engineer’ to tell them about my role with Costa Express. I have showed them various parts, explained how our machines work and the process of how a plant ends up in their adult’s coffee cup.”

“The children were fascinated and fully engaged. The feedback I received from their teachers was generally how amazed the children were to realise so much engineering is involved in the process of making a simple cup of coffee. That then instigates the interest and the questions in other things and how they are made.”

What skills do you need to become an engineer?

Penny says: “Whist there are specific skills and qualifications that are required, I think engineering requires being prepared to try new things, taking on and overcoming challenges and working as a team.”

“These are transferrable skills that apply to many walks of life. I’ve found my previous experience of software engineering and project management have applied to all the work I’ve done, regardless of the industry.”

To find out more about the opportunities for women in engineering, visit prospects.ac.uk

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[1] https://www.engineeringuk.com/media/232298/engineering-uk-report-2020.pdf

[2] https://www.ecitb.org.uk/portfolio-items/engineering-today-the-supply-and-demand-for-engineers-in-the-uk/

[3] https://www.wes.org.uk/content/wesstatistics

[4] https://get-trained.org/latest-news/why-engineering-so-male-dominated#:~:text=It’s%20no%20secret%20that%20engineering,in%20the%20last%20ten%20years.


Author Katherine Ducie, Marketing Executive