Closing the gender gap in Design Engineering Education – lessons from HE

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As of March 2022, women made up 16.5% of all engineers in the UK, compared to the 10.5% reported in 20101. While we may be tempted to say the jump from 1 in 10 engineers being women to 1 in 7 shows progress, these figures still reflect the fact that the number of female engineering students persistently sits below 20% in higher education (HE). Much has been written about the myriad ways in which people have tried to address this issue and yet stubbornly these statistics – and their impact upon minority groups – prevails.

Engineers are at their heart problem solvers. Today’s global problems require global solutions, and to achieve that you need everyone’s perspective – including marginalised groups. Failure to do so could lead to solutions which aren’t optimised for everybody, from CPR mannequins that don’t train emergency workers to resuscitate women to space suits that scupper female spacewalks2. It is vital that women are part of the engineering process.

Discipline choice and the gender divide in Engineering

The Engineering discipline is not flat when it comes to gender representation, and within a number of intriguing anomalies are signposts towards some possible solutions to this gender imbalance.

65% of Biomedical Engineering students are female compared to only 11% of Mechanical Engineers. Meanwhile, 29% of students studying Design Engineering identify as female – as do 53% of material science students. Understanding what drives these pockets of relative diversity, may be an effective way of changing the status quo in the subject more widely.

“Perceptions can play a key role in closing the current gender gaps – and can be challenged, overturned and reconceived in our schools.”

Many Biomedical Engineers arrive in the field via an aspiration towards medicine, which in turn is driven by a desire to help people. Material scientists are often those who loved Chemistry at A-level but

see Materials Science as having a broader employability appeal through applying that knowledge, while Design Engineers design for a purpose using a suite of skills. Each of these courses are inherently about applying the sciences to create and help – a perspective that can attract a more diverse audience than the more mechanical, mathematical stereotypes of the subject3.These perceptions can play a key role in challenging and overturning the current gender gaps we see in schools.

Typically, Engineering Science degrees focus a lot on how things work. This reductionist approach echoes the stereotype that Engineers like taking things apart and breaking them down into simple components.  Understanding how something works does not necessarily help you to create solutions to problems, however, and the ability to solve complicated exam questions does not prepare students for so-called “wicked” problems in the real world. In the wider sector today, we are seeing Engineers increasingly interact with people, the environment and external infrastructures which require systems thinking capability and a broader systems perspective. Optimisation through engineering becomes a balance between competing and complex priorities, and making the best engineering decisions requires the incorporation of values and ethics into decision-making processes, alongside an understanding of sustainability.

At an industry level we find that female Engineers generally progress into ‘non-technical’ management roles – something that could be viewed as a loss to the sector if we allow ourselves to see only technical roles as having value. But the ability to effectively manage complex projects involving multiple stakeholders and interfaces is a highly technical skillset with increasing value. These holistic skills are not picked up from studying the sciences as an individual pursuit, but through social and experiential learning – an approach involving community and collaboration that has been proven to attract female students4.

“A number of Engineering Education leaders (many women) are emerging, who are disrupting, decolonising and deconstructing the sector.”

“Survivorship” bias and re-moulding the Engineer stereotype through education

Another issue to consider is the dominance of “survivorship” bias in HE: those who teach Engineering are typically those whom academia allowed to thrive in their individual pursuit of engineering science; pursuits shaped by the dominant funding priorities of their career. This system does not suit everyone. That’s seen in the number of Engineering Education leaders, many of whom are women, who are now emerging to disrupt, decolonise and deconstruct the sector – and have been motivated to do so by their own less-smooth pathways through the industry.

Secondary educators may draw inspiration from this to tackle their own challenges around diversifying cohorts in design and technology (D&T) as well as in STEM subjects like physics that are core to engineering.  Many of these disruptive leaders can act as powerful role models to the next generation, as they consider the pathways available to them. A creative re-imagining of what engineers look like, sound like, work on, and achieve has the power to break the subject open at secondary, calling a more inclusive spectrum of learners to the profession, and kickstarting a virtuous cycle in which the attraction of diverse students attracts yet more new, diverse students.

In recent years, HE has made huge changes to the way it approaches mentoring, outreach and the diversity of role models. But how much change has been made to the discipline itself? Instead of changing the students, who is taking the risk of changing the offering?

“By focussing on project and problem-based learning, incorporating real-world case studies and aligning engineering curricula with recognisable global challenges, HE institutions can foster empathy, cultural competency and global awareness in students.”

What we teach, how we teach and how we assess has huge potential to reframe Engineering as a career and its pathways. Major group projects are now required for all accredited Engineering degrees, necessitating social and teamwork skills to succeed. Project and problem-based learning are also gathering momentum as exciting learning opportunities, presenting students with real-world case studies and complex problems that require a designed solution.

The global CDIO Initiative adds implementation and operation to conception and design (“Conceive – Design – Implement – Operate”)5 giving students feedback on their solutions to improve them. Many institutions align these projects to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, thus giving context to the technology, and showing the critical role that Engineering plays for every one of us.

For some students these global issues can seem far removed from their immediate context, so some universities are adding service-learning to their curricula, putting students into projects with real communities; taking part in external competitions such as Engineers without Borders;6 building empathy and global and cultural competency in students – and into the subject itself.

Ultimately a growing chorus of HE institutions are joining the likes of my own, King’s College London in recognising that closing the gender gap in design and engineering education is not just about increasing the number of women in the field; it is about transforming the entire landscape of engineering education. By focussing on project and problem-based learning, incorporating real-world case studies and aligning engineering curricula with recognisable global challenges, HE, alongside, schools across the country, can foster empathy, cultural competency and global awareness in students.7

Claire Lucas is Professor of Engineering Teaching and Learning in the Department of Engineering at King's College London, where she leads on Engineering Education research and the implementation of holistic project-based learning into the curriculum.