The number of women in UK engineering jobs is worryingly low, at just 6pc, new research shows. Louisa Peacock talks to Laurie-Ann Benner, one of two women at her company, on what it’s like to be outnumbered.
Surrounded at work by men all day, every day – without any female colleagues in sight – could be a gruelling thought for some women, but for Laurie-Ann Benner, it is just the norm.
The 21 year-old engineering apprentice from Cambridgeshire is one of only two female engineers currently working at Peme, a 250-strong, medium-sized engineering firm, which offers maintenance work to the sector. She and her only other female colleague are outnumbered 125:1 by men.
Benner insists, however, it’s not a problem for her. She has never encountered the so-called “glass ceiling” that prevents so many women from reaching their goals at work, she says, adding there are plenty of career opportunities on offer.
“Some might think it’s daunting but I’ve never seen myself as being less of a person because I’m female. I’ve never seen any reason why I cannot go after a certain job,” she says.
Unfortunately, the national picture of women in engineering paints a stark contrast. The latest industry figures show that of the engineering workforce in 2012, just 6pc are female. This is unchanged from the previous year and an increase of just 1pc since 2008, the study by the Institution of Engineering and Technology reveals. The proportion of women working as technicians is also worryingly low, at just 4pc, up from 3pc last year but down from 5pc at the start of the recession.
The IET research, seen by Telegraph Jobs, shows there is still a “significant gender gap” in the engineering workforce, with fewer women hired than men in all levels.
The statistics may not faze someone like Benner, but will likely put many women off even considering a career in the field, says Nigel Fine, the IET’s chief executive.
“There’s an awful lot of work still to be done to encourage more women into engineering,” he says. “We need to see a greater deal of flexibility from employers, to address the issue of childcare and family.”
Mr Fine said many engineering firms should think differently about how they employ people, in job shares or flexibly, to “accommodate different lifestyles” and attract more workers – men and women – into the profession.
Benner joined Peme four years ago as an advanced mechanical engineering apprentice. She learned the ropes and is now a “reliability engineer”, which involves travelling the country to maintain machinery in manufacturing plants. This week, she has already paid a visit to a dairy plant and is currently at Tate and Lyle, the food manufacturer, to carry out crucial checks to “prevent problems before they happen”.
Benner says she really enjoys her job and has never encountered prejudice because of her gender. “All the barriers you think might face a female engineer disappear when you work in the sector.”
The message from this self-starter is, refreshingly, that it doesn’t matter what gender you are if you want to get ahead at work.
But Benner is aware of the perception challenge, and says her firm is trying to break the mould. As one of two women at the company, Benner regularly visits local schools to spread the word about what a “fantastic” – and flexible – career engineering can be. She also offers tips on how to carve out a good career path, including how to communicate with your boss over working hours and work-life balance.
“There’s a lack of information going to teachers and school career advisers about the careers available. I visit schools to tell them about my job, and career progression available to me.”
Benner will be starting a degree soon, paid for by the firm, which will hold her in good stead for the future. She also won the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award last year, which gave her a confidence boost.
“Engineering is really well paid but people don’t know that. I continue to talk to young girls about the career and how much I enjoy it.”