The Engineering Gap There were around 900 Brownies amongst the crowd and Ms Bonfield recounts, “I’m saying to all these girls, ‘Do you know about engineering, would you like to be an engineer, have you thought about engineering?’
“And in the whole day… probably five or six of them said yes. Every other one said no, just straight out no.”
What surprised her most, she says, is that it wasn’t that these eight and nine-year-old girls didn’t know what engineering was. Simply that they had already switched off.
“So how much work does it take to change that?” asks Ms Bonfield. “I mean it’s huge.”
At the John Warner School in Hertfordshire, where you can take a GCSE in engineering, Dawn Bonfield’s discoveries would come as no surprise to the girls in the GCSE and A-level groups. They are well aware of the stigma surrounding women and engineering. It seems even in the 21st Century it is still thought of as a job for a man.
“It starts at a young age… and that’s just what we’ve grown up with,” says Sophie, who did an engineering GCSE, but isn’t continuing it to A-level, because of a timetable clash.
She puts it down partly to the fact that “girls are just put in the corner with a doll” – while boys play with trucks and cars – and partly down to the idea that manual labour is the preserve of men.
“It’s only when you get to GCSE age that that option’s offered to you, so a lot of people might still at that age be thinking, ‘Oh well, I shouldn’t be doing building or coding,’ and stuff like that.”
The girls at the John Warner School seem to defy some of these perceptions – 11 out of 13 of them said they would consider a career as an engineer. Nevertheless all of them are vastly outnumbered by boys in their different GCSE and A-level classes in engineering. And they’re in the minority in physics and maths classes too.
The UK has a particularly low percentage of female engineers, other European countries put the figure at around 20%. In the US it’s 14%, according to a recent congressional estimate, but the same question preoccupies the profession on the other side of the Atlantic too.
“There’s no silver bullet,” says Lina Nilsson, a biomedical engineer who works for a medical equipment company. She, however, believes she might have found one answer. When she was the innovation director in the Blum Center for developing economies at the University of California, Berkeley, the department started offering a postgraduate course on solutions for low-income communities.
Half the students who enrolled in the first classes in the autumn of 2014 were women.