Promoting the benefits for women of working in traditionally male jobs

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The Independent Online

The recent report from the Government's Women and Work Commission highlighted the importance of increasing women's participation in careers that are traditionally thought of as male - such as those in science, engineering, technology and built environment. According to the Women Into Science, Engineering and Construction (WISE) campaign just 18 per cent of engineering graduates and 2.8 per cent of chartered engineers are women. To change this, these careers need to be actively promoted to girls from a young age.

The Wider Horizons project, developed by Sheffield Hallam University, was introduced to encourage girls who had picked clerical and admin jobs for work experience to investigate alternative careers whilst on placement. By placing them in science, engineering, technology and building and construction companies they had the opportunity to try both their chosen area of work and additional activities. Placements included shadowing female surveyors, architects, engineers, health and safety officers, lab technicians and women in construction.

Not every careers service has access to such a well developed project, but all schools and careers advisers are able to get assistance from WISE to help demonstrate that such careers can be interesting and not involve the usual stereotypes.

But to be effective this work has to continue in further and higher education, where studying traditionally male subjects can be isolating. One institution taking this point on board is the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, where despite recognition of female recruitment as a priority, the proportion of women choosing to study computer-related fields is declining. "This is a problem," says Barbara Webb, Informatics recruitment officer, "as computing is the key technology of the future, so the control of it shouldn't be dominated by one half of the population."

One way they are addressing this problem is to facilitate a support group for female students. This group also emphasises career issues and successful female role models in the field.

It's not just while studying that women need to be encouraged. Laura Davies, 28, works in investment banking, another area where women are in the minority, and thinks that women need to be reassured that stereotypes are changing: "Career advisers should just have a bit more of an open mind when it comes to suggesting male dominated careers. In my job the old school of braces, beer guts and large chauvinistic chips on shoulders is dying out, so that should not act as an impediment to a female who may, otherwise, have considered such roles but was fearful of working in a potentially sexist environment."

Careers advisers also need to emphasise that the choices students make while at school are crucial, according to Maddie Smith of Manchester University Careers Service: "Talks in schools about career opportunities for scientists and engineers have a role to play here."

The Manchester University Careers and Employability Division has also implemented initiatives with schools, university academics, professional bodies and employers to try and redress this balance and highlight career opportunities. These include a peer mentoring scheme for women in engineering, in which senior female figures from industry are invited to talk to students about their experiences of working in a traditionally male dominated environment. "These women speakers challenge many myths and are offering positive role models, support and encouragement to women to stay in the industry as well as highlighting the range of exciting and dynamic career opportunities available," says Smith.

The under-representation of women in key areas is certainly a worry for Jenny Watson, Chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC): "It's no coincidence that the job sectors with the greatest skills shortages, such as IT and engineering, are those where women are most under-represented. Women need to be encouraged into these industries in order for companies to remain competitive. After all, employees are a key asset to any company and recruiting them from only half of the workforce does not make economic sense."

Watson places much of this responsibility on careers advisers: "It's especially important for young people to be given proper careers advice. Despite strong interest in non-typical jobs, EOC research found that just 15 per cent of boys and girls were told about non-typical work experience. Careers advice should challenge old fashioned ideas about the kinds of jobs men and women do, rather than reinforce it in the attitudes of young people."

Meg Munn is Minister for Women and Equality and MP for Sheffield Heeley. She is concerned about the low proportion of women in traditionally male fields: "Most young people are not given the option to try jobs in non-traditional areas. If we can break down this occupational segregation there is good evidence to suggest that we will also help to close the gap between the pay of men and women."

Reducing skills shortages is not the only reason for encouraging more women into these areas. Employers on the UK Resource for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology website give reasons to incorporate gender issues into business priorities including increasing financial figures, better innovation and fulfilling customer needs. This makes sense economically and in terms of having a fairer society. But to achieve this there needs to be a concerted effort from all sides. As Maddie Smith says: "University departments, professional bodies, careers services and employers all need to work together so that figures like the 2.8 per cent of Chartered Engineers being women become a thing of the past."

www.wisecampaign.org.uk

www.setwomenresource.org.uk

EMPLOYERS ARE PLAYING A KEY ROLE TOO

Opportunity Now is a business-led campaign that works with employers to realise the full potential of women at all levels and in all sectors of the workforce.

The organisation works to build and communicate the business case for this, to share and inspire best practice and to give employers and their people the tools to drive change.

Opportunity Now has a membership network of over 350 organisations from the private, public and education sectors. For more information visit www.bitc.org.uk/programmes/programme_directory/opportunity_now/

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