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Changes in engineering are required to help more women participate

11 February 2020

Efforts should be made to transform the culture and practices of engineering to help more women participate, new research by UCL Institute of Education (IOE) reveals.

Science Teacher and Pupil, Kirsten Holst © University College London

The findings, which form part of the IOE’s ASPIRES project, draw on survey data from more than 20,000 English pupils. They explore and compare the effects of gender, ethnicity, and cultural capital on science and engineering aspirations.

Gender was identified as the main background factor related to engineering aspirations. Students who identified as male reported significantly higher engineering aspirations than students identifying as female. In contrast, the researchers found that science aspirations are influenced by a broader range of factors than just gender, including ethnicity and cultural capital.

The researchers argue that efforts aimed at improving participation in engineering might more usefully focus on challenging the current culture and practices as this could influence student perceptions. The researchers suggest changing this may be more useful than focusing on changing student aspirations directly. 

The team also found that school-level factors become more important for engineering aspirations compared to science aspirations. This could be because most students do not encounter engineering as a school subject. Only 1 in 7 students age 15-16 said they talked about engineering at school and the majority said they did not know what engineers do in their work.

The lack of exposure to engineering potentially makes the choice of an engineering degree or career more difficult for students compared to other STEM disciplines.

The researchers recommend: 

  • Promoting a broader image of science and engineering to reflect the variety of careers available and to ensure that young people see science as ‘for me’;
  • Valuing the knowledge and lived experience of students and use this to broaden young people’s engagement with STEM;
  • Integrating engineering into the UK primary and secondary school curriculums to provide more opportunities for students;
  • Encouraging better career support, especially for women and girls considering engineering;
  • Broadening entry criteria for post-16 engineering routes.

Dr Julie Moote, Research Associate on the ASPIRES 2 project and lead author of the paper, said: “Women, along with minority ethnic and low‐income communities remain underrepresented in engineering, despite a 30‐year history of research and equality legislation. While existing research gives insights into factors shaping retention and progression among university engineering students, comparatively less is known with respect to primary and secondary school students’ engineering aspirations and perceptions.

“Increasing and widening participation in engineering will require action on several fronts – not only increasing awareness of engineering careers but also reducing entry barriers and addressing inequalities within engineering itself.”

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  • Kirsten Holst, UCL