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Changing the face of engineering

“Engineering is the most exciting, challenging and diverse industry to work in,” says Dr Gwen Reilly, Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion for the Faculty of Engineering. She reveals how Sheffield is attracting female students from all backgrounds to follow this career path.

Gwen Reilly

By Dr Gwen Reilly, Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Faculty of Engineering

The UK’s engineering workforce is currently 94 per cent white and 91 per cent male; these are concerning statistics. Firstly, they don’t represent the diversity in our country and more worryingly, these statistics could be intimidating to those underrepresented groups of people who have aspirations of becoming an engineer but have few role models within the field. We need to show young people that engineering is an accessible and exciting career and we do this by celebrating a diverse workforce. However, in order to do this we first need to create one.

There is no doubt that engineering is vital to our economy and future success. The Engineering UK report from 2017 revealed that it contributes 26 per cent of the UK’s gross domestic product – more than the retail, financial and insurance sectors combined. Yet according to skills organisation Semta, the UK’s engineering industry is facing a skills shortage of unprecedented levels, with the need for 1.8 million people trained by 2025.

At this University, we regularly celebrate the achievements of our female academics, students and alumni in a bid to inspire young girls. Our female undergraduates run a fantastic Women in Engineering Society, which offers encouragement to younger students to get involved in engineering as well as support for current students in their career pathways.

We want to reach young people before societal and gender stereotypes about engineering set in. As Professor Mike Hounslow, Vice-President and Head of Engineering, said, “We need to be talking to children in primary school about what engineering is and what engineers do, particularly to girls. They make up half the population; they should make up half the engineers.”

We are spearheading several key initiatives to inspire the next generation. Each year we hold an Exploring STEM for Girls event as well as an Inspire Summer School – both designed for female students to spark their curiosity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, and we are also working with local companies to look at ways of increasing the number of women studying and working in engineering.

We are happy to see that our efforts to make engineering more accessible are beginning to have an effect.”

We are happy to see that our efforts to make engineering more accessible are beginning to have an effect. We currently have 21 per cent female undergraduate students across the years, up from 18 per cent in 2015, while our first year now has 23 per cent female UK students.

It is fantastic that we are seeing positive changes such as this in women studying on engineering programmes. Unfortunately, it is far from the norm. In the UK, just 15.8 per cent of engineering and technology undergraduates are female. Compare this to India, where over 30 per cent of engineering students are women. The UK also has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10 per cent, while Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead with nearly 30 per cent.

Over the last 100 years, many significant engineering achievements have become commonplace globally and are often taken for granted. Safe drinking water, a reliance on electricity, safer use of the internet, and air travel made easier and faster. These are all remarkable, and engineers continue to push the boundaries, seeking to make a difference by solving the grand challenges of the future, in areas such as healthcare, sustainability, infrastructure and artificial intelligence.

Our motivation as engineers is to make the world a better place, achieving the unachievable. What more could you ask for from a career?

Women in engineering

People often have misconceptions of what being an engineer means. When I was at school, I had people asking me why I wanted to go and fix cars. There’s so many things you can do as an engineer, it’s all about shaping the future. You’re the person who designs what happens next and I find that truly fascinating.”

Dr Christina Georgiou
(PhD Automatic Control and Systems Engineering 2017), Principal
Consultant at PA Consulting Group

christina georgiou

As a child I had always enjoyed taking things apart like clocks and going to look at bridges to understand how they worked so engineering was a natural choice for me. I would really encourage anyone who wants a job that’s creative but is commercial, and that has a technical challenge involved as well, to go and study civil and structural engineering.”

Sue Threader, FICE
(BEng Civil and Structural Engineering 1988) Chief Executive of the Rochester Bridge Trust

Sue Threader

I teach over 500 undergraduate and postgraduate students, across all disciplines of engineering. As well as delivering the practical teachings of laboratory skills, I also create and develop new practical activities that allow our students to get hands-on experience and vital techniques that they can then use in their future careers.”

Helen Wright (BSc Biomedical Science 2008)
Teaching Technician for Bioengineering, Department of Multidisciplinary Engineering Education

Helen Wright

I’ve been a really active STEM ambassador since I left the University; I’ve really enjoyed taking what I’ve learned and applying it to the next generation and inspiring them.”

Helen Gregory CEng, MICE
(MEng Structural Engineering and Architecture 2013) Project Manager, Transport for London

Helen Gregory

I chose to study engineering at university because back in high school I liked maths and science, especially chemistry and physics. Engineering is about problem solving, creativity, innovation and technical knowledge. I like that it’s hands-on learning.”

Salina Jantarang
Chemical Engineering student

Salina Jantarang

Modelling and simulation has the ability to transform data into information and information into knowledge – I believe working in this field prepares me to be an effective scientist in global healthcare.”

Dr Mitra Abbasi
(MSc (Eng) Advanced Software Engineering 2010, PhD Computational System Biology 2015), Research scientist, Simcyp Ltd

Dr Mitra Abbasi

I was encouraged to look at Sheffield by my cousin who studied chemical engineering here and had a fantastic time. Now I’m here myself, the scholarship means I can fully embrace university life without having to worry about finances. It’s given me some fantastic opportunities and motivates me to succeed – both on my course and in my future career. I hope to succeed in my career so that one day I will be in a financial position to donate to the scholarship fund so that another student can benefit the way I have.”

Atalanta Hinds
MEng Mechanical Engineering student

Undergraduate Scholarship recipient, funded by a donation in memory of Kenneth Brooks


Wall of Women

Our online Wall of Women showcases many women who all have one thing in common – they are successful engineering alumni, students and staff at the University of Sheffield.

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