Re-engineering how girls see Stem

21st August 2015 at 01:00
All-female college course aims to promote careers in the sector

Highly trained engineers are crucial to many of Scotland's key growth industries, from renewable energy to oil, yet the number of girls studying the subject remains low. This is despite years of efforts by educators to encourage more women to enter the sector.

Now, one college is offering an all-female HNC engineering course in a bid to entice girls to consider the profession. More than a dozen students have signed up for the City of Glasgow College pilot- a significantly higher female intake than a typical entry-level engineering course.

The idea of an all-female programme emerged after a three-day taster course at the college attracted 70 girls, many of whom felt that studying in a single-gender environment for the first year would give them more confidence.

After completing the HNC, students will be able to progress on to HND-level courses with mixed classes.

Carol Murray, head of construction, engineering and energy at the college, said girls remained under-represented in engineering, despite its potential as a career path. She told TESS that a class of 25 students would usually contain one or two girls. The proportion "never got above 5 to 7 per cent", she said, so the college made the decision to "try something new".

According to the Scottish Funding Council, in 2012-13 only one in 16 college engineering students was female. In 2013-14, 84.9 per cent of people studying the subject in higher education were male.

`It's more accepted now'

Ms Murray is well aware of the challenges of entering engineering but also the opportunities the sector can offer female students. In 1977, she became the first female apprentice at car manufacturer Rolls-Royce, and was later a research and development engineer at the company's aerospace factory in Hillington near Glasgow.

"I liked maths and I was curious about how things work," she said. "I was the only girl."

She added that her apprenticeship coincided with new equal opportunities legislation coming into force: "It was a different time then. Attitudes were different. We have moved on. It is much more accepted now for girls to go down this route."

Ms Murray stressed that the new approach was not intended to discourage male students. "It's a positive discrimination - we are just doing something to try to open the door for girls," she said. "We have an ocean of female talent and, previously, we haven't been able to tap into it."

All-female classes would make it easier for girls to settle into their course and get the most of it, Ms Murray said.

"Girls are interested in engineering - they just don't want to go to an educational setting where they are the only girl," she explained. "If there are five or six girls, there's a greater chance that they'll make friends, enjoy their education and excel academically."

Travelling the world

Informing girls about the variety of careers available in engineering was key to addressing the gender imbalance, Ms Murray said: "We have to educate girls on what engineering is. If you wait until the third, fourth and fifth year of secondary school, it might be too late."

Engineering was "a career where you can stay within your local area or travel the world", she added. "You could be working on a mobile phone or a massive structure."

The college has confirmed that its taster course for school-age girls will become an annual feature.

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has supported calls for more women to be encouraged to pursue engineering. In a video posted last week ahead of a speech on education, she said women were at risk of being "locked out of jobs" because they were less likely to specialise in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

She added that the country could not sustain a situation where only 3 per cent of engineers were women when more than 7 million jobs in the UK were forecast to be dependent on the sciences by 2030.

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