Volunteering at the Big Bang Fair last week I hoped to have the chance to understand more clearly the reasons for the continuing shortage of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.
As coachload after coachload from schools across the UK filed into the NEC’s cavernous halls to get their hands on the mind-boggling exhibits laid on by Engineering UK and its partners, I saw engagement, fascination and enthusiasm demonstrated by both girls and boys.
And, as my colleagues from the EI and I set about polling more than 1,300 of them – who we subsequently labelled Energy Superheroes – about their views on energy and climate change, if anything, I found girls to have a stronger sense of the intergenerational issues at stake.
And yet women are under-represented in the energy industry, and in engineering. As someone relatively new to working in this area, the numbers make tough reading.
Only a third of those taking STEM subjects through to A level are female. In fact, girls are underrepresented in all STEM A level subjects except for biology and chemistry, despite making up the majority of all A level entries.
Furthermore, only 8% of those starting engineering-related apprenticeships are female.
This hit home to me when speaking to the children at the Big Bang Fair about a future career in engineering. While many of the boys I interviewed appeared excited about working in this field, when I brought this suggestion up with girls, the same did not seem to be the case.
Many didn’t appear to make the link between their desire to take action on climate change and the possibility of a career in engineering being for them.
It’s easy to say this is rooted in centuries of male-dominated social norms, going back generations.
But it’s also attributable to signals in the present day. It’s not surprising, when you look to the top of the UK energy industry and find only 5% of executive board seats are held by women, that girls don’t see it as a world for them.
Progress is being made, however. I’m lucky to work with a female Chief Executive who leads an organisation that outstrips the industry it represents in terms of valuing and exhibiting gender diversity.
In my short time at the Energy Institute I’ve also had the privilege of meeting some inspiring female winners of our EI Awards.
Last year’s highly commended young energy professional was Rose Atkinson who works in Uganda transforming the lives of East Africans by providing them with quality solar energy and financing solutions. It’s people like Rose that will help inspire the next generation of female energy professionals.
I’m hopeful that the Big Bang Fair and the Year of Engineering more generally will succeed in getting more young women to join the pipeline of fresh talent in these important professions. And with initiatives such as POWERful Women supporting senior female energy professionals into leadership positions – the future also looks bright.
Only by succeeding at this, drawing fully on the diverse ingenuities of men and women, can the energy industry hope to find the best solutions that serve us all.
So, while the findings of our Big Bang poll won’t be published for some weeks (watch this space!), my experience at Big Bang Fair has left me sure of one thing – that the future Energy Superheroes must be – and can be – men AND women.