The number of women in engineering remains low, despite a raft of initiatives to redress the balance

From MI5 to politics to world-beating circumnavigations of the globe, women are excelling in pursuits once marked out as male territory. Yet, despite a wide range of initiatives to redress the present imbalance, many of which have been running for almost three decades, engineering remains a male-dominated career choice.

Women account for only 14 per cent of those studying engineering at university and that pitiful proportion shrinks dramatically when it comes to pursuing a career as a professional engineer. According to the Association for Women in Science & Engineering, the proportion of women in the Royal Society has been a mere 3 per cent for 30 years - and the proportion of women in the Royal Academy of Engineering is one tenth of this.

"The numbers of women are barely moving," says John Bristow of Semta, the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing. "Only 5 per cent of professional engineers are women. It's appalling and it doesn't seem to be getting any better."

There are a whole range of factors at play here: not enough young women pick mathematics and science at A-level; too many hold out-dated and inaccurate views on engineering; there are too few role models; and, for bright, numerate students, there are more lucrative careers on offer in banking and accountancy.

"We need to change hearts and minds," says Wendy Hall, professor of computing science at Southampton University, who has been highlighting the lack of women in computing for some 20 years. She points to the medical profession, once a male bastion but which now attracts a student body that is more than 50 per cent female. Hall says women tend to be attracted to careers such as medicine where they can make a positive contribution - and too few of them understand that engineering also fulfils that criterion.

Be it rebuilding devastated communities in the wake of natural disasters, providing irrigation systems in developing countries or working on sustainable energy projects, engineering is one job that where you can make a real difference to how people live.

"A career in engineering is extremely rewarding," says Professor Polina Bayvel, Vice Dean of Research in the Faculty of Engineering Sciences at University College, London. "You really do contribute something to society." However, she admits that it can be tough on women. "It does require a certain amount of guts and character," says Bayvel, who specialises in electronic and electrical engineering. "It's not every girl who will be happy to be in an all-male environment. And there is an undercurrent of having to be better to prove yourself."

Anneeza Abdul-Ghani, who dropped medical studies for chemical engineering when she found she couldn't stand the sight of blood, is the only woman in her section at global oil giant Shell. She agrees it can be a challenging job for young women.

"You have to prove yourself and hang on in there," says Abdul-Ghani, who inspects the health, safety and environmental performance of refineries and processing plants. "But once they see what you can do, all the gender issues usually disappear."

Rachel Tarling, a civil engineer with engineering giant Atkins, believes her uniqueness can be a benefit. "Women do think in a slightly different way and I think a lot of men like working with women for that reason," says Tarling, who says she's never encountered any problems, whether onsite or in the office. "It's not that one sex is better than the other: we both bring our own complementary skills to the equation."

And in a new business world, where collaboration, partnering and people-management are the watchwords, women with their perceived abilities in these areas, are increasingly in demand. Yet supply remains scarce - and there's a sense of increasing frustration that the demographics remain so skewed.

As Professor Wendy Hall points out, engineering is fundamental to the very fabric of modern life yet 50 per cent of the population is not represented when key decisions are made.

"At the moment, every device, interface and software programme is designed by men - women are just not involved in that process," says Hall. "Yet they are 50 per cent of the end users."

A looming skills gap in the engineering industry is adding impetus to the search for female talent. "We're hungry for talented people and cannot afford to be underrepresented with such a large group of people," says Alun Griffiths, group HR director at Atkins.

Scarcity attracts a salary premium. Atkins, for example, has enhanced its graduate package for young engineers to help it compete more effectively with the accounting, legal and consultancy professions. It's adding a golden hello of £2,500 to the market rate of £21,000-£22,000 for graduates, with further phased payments in cash and shares as they meet key milestones. The skills council Semta reckons a chartered engineer can quickly be earning upwards of £45,000.

In addition to the financial rewards, there's the satisfaction of working in a creative, stimulating environment. Again and again the women interviewed for this article cited the buzz of team work, the satisfaction of pitting your ingenuity against a problem and coming up with innovative and practical solutions.

"I have enjoyed every single moment," says Rachel Tarling of her eight years at Atkins. "I love the fact that it's real and that it's so important to every aspect of our lives. It's a very satisfying job."

'Role models are so important'

Mandy Chessell is a senior technical staff member at IBM's Hursley Development Laboratory and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering

When I was at school, I didn't have any particular thoughts about careers. I knew I wanted to do something creative and mentally stimulating but it wasn't until I started my A-levels and was offered the chance to do computer science that I discovered what I really wanted to do.

I did my first degree in computing and informatics at Plymouth Polytechnic and then did a Masters in software engineering. About 10 per cent of the people on my course were women and the numbers don't really seem to be improving. I find it sad that there are so few women. There's a small number going into engineering and an even smaller number who rise to the top. Yet it's so important to have women as role models.

What attracts me to engineering is the creativity and teamwork that's involved. I've now been working at IBM for 17 years. It's very stimulating work and in software engineering you effectively retrain every five years because while some things do endure, a lot of the specific technologies change.

'Women have to be more committed'

Dr Paola Lettieri, who studied mechanical engineering in Rome, is a Research Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering and an Honorary Senior Lecturer in chemical engineering at University College London (UCL)

I was always interested in modifying and redesigning things. Rome is full of scooters and I was always one of those people with a spanner in their hand, trying to make my scooter go faster. I chose mechanical engineering because I was always interested in how things work and why.

I came to UCL in 1994 and starting working on fluidisation, which was completely new to me, and later joined BP's technical engineering division. I had five fantastic years in industry, seeing how it works and what it's like to work in a big company like BP. But I knew that producing more plastic or making more money for BP, while very challenging, was not going to be hugely rewarding for me as an individual. So I applied to the Royal Academy in 2000 and I was the first woman engineer to be awarded a research fellowship. I now have a PhD research student and we're looking at how to produce energy from waste.

Engineering is very male dominated. Whenever I go to international conference, I always note that there are very few women on the stage presenting their work. It's just me surrounded by men. In Rome there were several thousands of students doing engineering and very few women. In my class, there were eight women out of 300 students. But the women tend to do well: perhaps because they have to be more committed to succeed. I know the treatment I've received as a woman has not always been fair and I have been discriminated against in the past. But in the end it has helped me because those experiences gave me the strength to really develop my career.

'I worked on projects in Kosovo'

Captain Josephine Igoe decided to combine her engineering background with an army life. She is now at the Royal School of Military Engineering

I fell into engineering. I did maths and physics A-levels and really enjoyed those subjects, but I didn't know an awful lot about engineering. I studied civil engineering at Nottingham Trent more by luck than judgment but it turned out to be something I really enjoyed. I was one of six women on the course of 60 so I was certainly a minority, but I had a great time.

I joined the Officer Training Corp while I was at university because I'd always loved an active outdoors lifestyle, it was a good social life and they pay you, which is a real incentive when you're a student. I joined the army in 1997 after a year travelling. Early on, I worked as a troop commander and they sent me to Kosovo where I worked on minor construction tasks. Then I spent two years doing my Professional Engineer Training, which involves six months in the classroom and 18 months working with civilian companies. I really enjoy the work I'm doing now, which could be designing operational accommodation or building schools in Kenya. I'm also instructing in the engineering school and really enjoy the teaching.

I would advise any engineering student to consider the army, particularly if you are set on being chartered because you can do that while you are in the army. Because you do the 18-month civilian attachment you have skills that are in line with the civilian world but your management skills tend to be much better. You can be managing 25 men and women as soon as you join the army and having that responsibility very early on does stand you in very good stead. Whether you stay in the army forever or go and do something else, working as an engineer in the army really does set you up for life.