The skills which women bring to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering are slowly being appreciated. Justine East reports

This year marks the 20th anniversary for the campaign WISE (Women Into Science and Engineering). "In a way, it's worrying that a campaign to attract women into the industry should need to run for so long," admits Marie-Noelle Barton, national director. "But we are obviously making some contribution because 18 per cent of people working in the industry are now female, up from just 7 per cent when we started out. That's why we will continue our work."

The reasons for the shortage of women are the same as they were two decades ago, she believes. "One of the main problems is the image of engineering in this country. Go to Italy, France or Germany and engineers have a very high status, similar to that of doctors and lawyers. But back home, the perception of engineering still involves oily rags and overalls."

The fact that engineering is still seen as a male occupation doesn't help, adds Alan Clarke, chief executive of the Engineering and Technology Board (ETB). "Gender stereotyping starts very young in children. We know that over the course of time, these stereotypes disappear, but since we ask our young people to decide whether they want to pursue science by the age of 15, it's a time when they still have some influence."

Even women who do take degrees in science and engineering (SET) often wind up in other industries. The ETB estimates that around three-quarters of such women fail to take up a career in SET. The lack of female role models could be one explanation. There are champions out there, many of whom are committed to acting as ambassadors for the industry, but more are needed.

Barton explains: "Equally as important in attracting women into engineering is making sure they progress once they're in. This is important in showing young women out there in the world that they could follow in their footsteps. It's also important because until you get women on the board, you won't change the culture of boards where members tend towards appointing people like themselves - generally white and male."

On the whole, women who do enter the industry are keen to sing its praises and many consider their gender irrelevant. Fleur Etchells, a 26-year-old systems engineer for BAE Systems, says: "I am in a minority as a female, but I have never experienced any discrimination. In fact, when fewer females go for a job, it's possible that they have a greater chance of getting it, although it's a person's abilities that really count."

Problem solving is the aspect of engineering she enjoys the most. "I also like the high level of direct work with the customers and all the benefits of working for a multinational organisation," she says.

The Government claims it is particularly committed to tackling the shortage of women in engineering. Indeed, it is currently in the process of establishing a new resource centre, which will raise the profile of women in SET, run an expert women's database, produce good practice guidelines and develop a means of recognising good SET employers.

A Government spokesperson explains: "As the knowledge economy permeates further, we must endeavour to ensure that the new workplace is inclusive of women to ensure that the UK can benefit from the talents of the whole population, not just half of it."

Julie Mellor, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), agrees. She believes that recruiting more women into male-dominated industries and occupations could be the key to solving the skills crisis and stopping the damage it is causing to the economy. "Women are a huge untapped resource for industries like engineering," she says.

Meanwhile, companies themselves are also taking steps to increase their female representation. Navjot Singh, marketing manager for recruitment at Shell, says: "When we speak to female graduates at careers fairs, we find that many are interested in flexible working hours, working from home and structured career breaks - all issues which we take very seriously. Indeed, this extends very high up the scale. Our talent, resourcing and learning manager for Shell UK Exploration and Production, for example, leaves work every Thursday and Friday in time to pick her children up from school."

In addition, Shell provides mentoring and a women's network, supported by the most senior women in the organisation.

Particularly high on many employers' agendas in recent years has been proactive targeting of female undergraduates and graduates to show off the opportunities on offer. Ford is among them, boasting a women's engineering panel which encourages more female engineering undergraduates to pursue it as a career. Judging by the dramatic increase in the intake of female graduates in the past few years, it is working well.

It makes sense for Ford to employ more women engineers, not least because more than half its customers are female. Jane Berkman, head of education and skills at the Engineering Employers' Federation (EEF), adds that women bring a different insight to any engineering project. "Women, for example, tend to be better at team working than men, whereas men are often better at the competitive nature of the job," she explains.

Grace Johnstone, a 27-year-old flight test engineer at BAE Systems and Young Woman Engineer of the Year 2003, says: "I often tend to have a different way of going about things than my male peers and this variety certainly seems to make for a good team."

Case study

Joanne Stoves, 25, joined Shell last year as a graduate

After studying chemical engineering at Sheffield University and working with two companies in industry for a year each, I decided to apply to Shell. I wanted to join a multinational company for the opportunities and felt Shell was strong in chemicals and oil in general.

Currently, my job involves supporting benzene plants around Europe. If they have a medium- to long-term problem, they contact me and I either find literature within Shell or go to other plants. Before that, I worked for six months on a chemical site in the Netherlands.

I like the fact that the career path at Shell is so flexible and involves doing a real job from day one.

It is a male-dominated environment, but I am recognised for bringing different things to the team. I was told that my openness in communication, for instance, provides added value.

WISE (Women Into Science and Engineering) Campaign

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WISE Directory of Initiatives

Details of awards, courses, visits, employers' family-friendly policies and other initiatives. Available free from WISE

CRACKING IT by Josephine Warrior

An in-depth guide to careers for women in the science, engineering and technology industry. To order a copy, contact: Training Publications Ltd, PO Box 75, Stockport, SK4 1PH; 0161 480 5285