Engineering equality: Are universities learning the gender lesson?

Girls in EngineeringReport by Yemesi Sofolarin and Alexandra Wynne.

It’s that time of year again, where in the past week our national media was awash with the ecstatic and devastated faces of A-level students as they discover where their adult life is about to begin.

The swell of women that dominate these images could well lead the viewer to believe that there’s a pretty even gender split in the 2014 intake.

But how is the UK really doing at eliminating gender bias in its civil engineering degree programmes? The official statistics suggest not well: 84% of first year civil engineering degree students in 2012-13 (the most recent figures available) were male. Just 785 of the 4,830 civils students were female.

Much is made of the need to do more to attract interest in the profession to both boys and girls while they are still at school, but what happens at the point at which school leavers contemplate their first steps toward a career as they head to university?

Considering the top universities for civil engineering would be likely to have the best resources, it seemed apt to look to them to see how they and their degree programmes are perceived by female applicants.

Anecdotal evidence from the current undergraduates or recent graduates NCE spoke with suggests the upper echelons of the academic world are reflective of the wider industry – women are well represented in administrative roles and under-represented in academic teaching positions and student bodies.

And this is apparent from the first open days through to graduation.

“My interviewers were all older men, who seemed very intelligent, with much experience in their area,” says recent Bristol University graduate Jo Jackson, now working for Crossrail.

“I went to one open day at Edinburgh for a civil engineering with architecture course and I think the women staff members there were more involved in the architecture side. The engineering staff I met were mostly men.”

Of the people recent graduate Lucy Dalton met embarking on her civil engineering degree application process, there were noticeably fewer women, and while most university open days had at least one woman academic staff member in attendance she said the exceptions were Bristol, Imperial College London and Cambridge University.

For Steph Neath, field engineer for Bechtel and recent University of Leeds graduate, behind her male interviewer, women were only represented in administrative positions.

University imbalance

This is hardly news to the universities, whose numbers reveal exactly how it might come to pass that many young women seeking to enter the profession via the academic world would believe the odds are against them succeeding by reaching the highest ranks in any great number.

Oxford University’s civil engineering department has a single woman in its 19-strong academic team, equating to seven among the 91 academics in the wider engineering science department.

Imperial College London has an interesting slant on the gender split given that its civils course is combined with the traditionally much more gender balanced environmental engineering discipline.

One would perhaps assume that, as a result, the combined civil and environmental engineering department would be greatly more balanced – not so. Of its 72 academic staff, just 10 are women.

At Bristol, all five of its specialist civil engineering lecturers are men; Cambridge University’s 29 civil engineering lecturers and researchers include just four women; and out of the University of Nottingham’s 37 civil engineering staff – including professors, associated professors and lecturers – only two women are employed.

The University of Birmingham’s 29 academic staff in its civil engineering school includes just two women in the mix. It’s not the case that all women will be put off by the implicit sexism of the profession at such an early stage, and the stronger presence of women in the wider administrative and cross discipline roles is welcome enough for some.

Another Bechtel employee and graduate of Bristol, Lani Tan, says she was unaware of the gender imbalance having “grown up with two older brothers and quite a dominant personality”.

“Looking back, the university application process was mostly dominated by men,” she says.

“None of my lecturers were women, as I recall there was only one woman lecturer. However, a lot of the administrative staff members were women, so I wasn’t drowning in a sea of men. It was a male-driven environment. But that didn’t bother me as much as it does now, working in the industry.”

Now at Bristol is third year civil engineering student Brittany Harris, who says simply that she doesn’t remember meeting any female staff at the interview stage.

“I only know of two female staff in our department, and we are only taught by one of them, who is brilliant,” she says.
But, she adds, the very fact that there was such an imbalance in the profession was part of the fascination.

“I was very aware and had been warned of the gender imbalance – and that is one of the reasons I chose engineering,” she says.

“I wanted to prove that girls are not just as good, but in many cases better than boys at some of this stuff.”

Institutional bias

Overcoming adversity is an often valued quality in any human story, but the fact that it comes up as a gauntlet to be laid down in front of women suggests the fight has to come from the individual because there is still institutional gender bias.

If it could be truly disregarded as an institutional problem then one would expect a greater defence of the status quo by the institutions themselves.

In fact, most are beginning to acknowledge and get on board with initiatives that aim to redress the balance.

Some 114 academic institutions have signed up as members of the Athena Swan charity, which aims to encourage commitment to addressing the academic gender imbalance in the fields of science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine.

The gesture is worthwhile, but even at the top universities such as Imperial there is a distinct lack of individual initiatives that might separate out the most forward looking institutions from the weakest ones.

Imperial has an outreach office that promotes the STEM subjects in schools and colleges, but has now begun “looking into” the specific promotion of women into engineering next year.

Whatever the initiative, its success will doubtless be evident the day that half of the students and the esteemed academic staff positions at the UK’s top universities for civil engineering degrees are held by women.




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