Women and Engineering– Why Do Girls Really Drop STEM?
As BIM adoption becomes ever more prevalent and clients require increasingly sophisticated levels to be met, the AEC industry is in an extremely exciting and fast-moving period of change. At a time of such progress why does the engineering workforce across Europe still lack true diversity? More specifically, why aren’t there more women engineers?
Innovative hardware and software are helping to save companies time and money while the collaborative philosophy behind BIM places a greater emphasis than ever before on enhanced communication. Change is sweeping across all aspects of the construction supply chain as the way buildings are designed, built and managed are irrevocably shaped by progress.
"In the UK, the number of women working in engineering is embarrassingly low with men making up 91% of those in the job."
However, despite these revolutionary developments, one area that appears resistant to change is the disparity between the number of male and female engineers. In Sweden, 26% of engineering professionals are women. In Italy, this falls to 20% while 18% of those working in the sector in Spain are female (roughly equivalent to the statistic in the United States). In the UK, the number of women working in engineering is embarrassingly low with men making up 91% of those in the job.
The UK is currently suffering from a national skills shortage and encouraging more women to join the building and construction sector has been identified as key in diffusing what is otherwise a ticking time-bomb. However, take up and retention rates for Further Education engineering courses remain in decline as do the number of girls taking STEM subjects at exam level.
"With BIM opening up so many exciting engineering and contracting career opportunities, it is particularly woeful that more girls do not opt for working in the AEC industry."
Alarmingly, one of the most often aired explanations for the gaping gender gap is that girls simply aren’t interested in STEM subjects. Anyone who has ever spent time around young children and Lego knows this is absurdly untrue. While a degree of disinterest is inevitable in either sex, research shows that where girls are given practical engineering tasks to complete and enjoy as frequently as their male counterparts their interest is peaked and retained at a corresponding level. Disengagement typically occurs when peers, parents and teaching staff, wittingly or otherwise, begin to suggest or promote segregation in the way girls and boys evaluate and solve STEM problems. Where there is equality between the sexes in terms of practical STEM experiences, girls show more than enough aptitude, understanding and enthusiasm. With BIM opening up so many exciting engineering and contracting career opportunities, it is particularly woeful that more girls do not opt for working in the AEC industry. In Western society, girls are constantly subject to an influx of subliminal messaging pushing them towards so-called ‘soft subjects’. While boys are encouraged to get their hands dirty and be assertive, girls are told, emphatically, that their role is to mediate, negotiate and people please. Arguably, what the advent of BIM does (as well as being in industry game changer) is to elevate those self-same ‘soft skills’ from a position of perceived inferiority to the vanguard of an industry revolution. In placing collaboration and communication at the fore, BIM is dependent on professionals who have a broad understanding of its value as a philosophy rather than viewing it merely as a software or – worse still – a fad. Ironically, after years of pejorative action and thinking in STEM, surely girls are now ideally place to lead the industry as it transitions and blossoms?
Unfortunately, with so few women visible in the sector, the challenge of bridging the engineering gender divide all too often falls almost exclusively to teachers and the lack of practical opportunities available in a classroom setting all too often fail to inspire. Furthermore, non-specialist educationalists – outside of further and higher education – are unlikely to have even the slightest grasp of what BIM is or what it entails.
Without the industry itself stepping in to make-up the classroom shortfall, it seems unlikely that the UK skills shortage will ever be addressed and that’s a huge blow to everyone. Perhaps what is required is a targeted and meaningful campaign whereby businesses step in and offer girls and boys the chance to get to grips with BIM? If not, the future of the industry is set to suffer worldwide as the skills shortage spreads and grows.