Network Rail today pledged to change its approach as it seeks to boost the number of women working on the railways after new research revealed that girls as young as seven have an ‘unconscious bias’ against engineering and by 14, many have fully switched off from it as a career option.
Focus groups with schoolgirls across the country revealed a watershed age of 11 to attract girls into engineering as a career. The ‘Switch On, Switch Off’ research, undertaken by InnovationBubble for Network Rail, showed a key window of opportunity to interest girls with pre-secondary school girls most open to becoming an engineer, responding strongly to female role models and a career with a social value such as rail.
The research found:
- Girls aged 7 to 9 were switched off by thinking engineering was too dirty and messy but switched on by understanding the social purpose of engineering
- Girls aged 10 to 12 were worried that engineering is dangerous and that they weren’t strong enough but responded positively to role models in engineering
- Girls aged 13 to 15 thought it was unglamorous and unsocial but liked the opportunity to stand out with a different career choice.
It is hoped thousands of girls will be encouraged to consider working on the railways as Network Rail pledged to use the research findings to boost its schools programme. By 2018, some 3,000 teenage girls at five schools in Milton Keynes, the home of Network Rail’s national centre with 3,000 employees, will receive careers advice on working on the railways alongside school programmes run at a local level across the country. It will also continue to find and appoint role models among its staff to serve as ambassadors for women working on the railways.
Network Rail will roll-out a work experience scheme supported by Barclays which will start in the new school year. The company will also run a series of open evenings at training centres targeted at women, showcasing roles, introducing applicants to staff and building confidence to apply for engineering roles. In a further bid to shift the gender balance, Network Rail will work with the campaign group Women in Science, Technology and Engineering (WISE) to increase understanding of why girls often reject careers in these fields.
Chief engineer for Network Rail, Jane Simpson, said: “If my school careers adviser had her way, I would have become a nursery nurse or teacher but I wasn’t willing to accept being pigeon-holed like that.”
Jane joined the engineering industry as an apprentice aged 16 and is now Network Rail’s most senior engineer, managing a 500+ strong team of engineers and technicians across Britain.
She continued: “Role models are crucial to show girls and women what’s possible and where their potential can take them. I was lucky to have a female role model who saw my potential and helped me realise it. Some quite senior men were astonished that I could talk confidently about complex engineering problems, but they soon came to see me for what I could do, not my gender. As the most senior engineer in one of Britain’s biggest engineering companies I know I can help girls along a similar path and be part of something special.”
The research identifies five opportunities to attract girls to engineering:
- Communicate the social value of engineering – help girls understand that becoming an engineer can help improve and even save lives
- Female role models working in engineering were identified as the critical influence in changing attitudes
- Identifying what engineering is from an early stage – at school and at home – talking about how things are designed and built and who does that job to build understanding and interest
- Gaming, Minecraft in particular, was identified as a way of taking a school subject and putting it into the girls’ social lives
- Don’t bemoan a lack of female engineers, celebrate those that have chosen it as a profession. Teachers and parents were unsurprisingly identified as key influences in girls’ career choices.
Dr Simon Moore of InnovationBubble said: “The research pinpoints a critical time period for girls’ receptiveness to engineering as a career. At 11 the girls’ interests seemed to shift from being purely interested in jobs in food, art or the media – to those that were more technical such as law, medical, or science. The worrying result was that if the girls had not been informed by the age of 14 of the potential of a career in engineering they were completely switched off to the idea.”
Loraine Martins, director of diversity and inclusion at Network Rail, said: “We have some fantastically smart and creative women working for us, making a big difference to the millions of people who travel by train every single day. We want even more women to be inspired by the job Network Rail does and to join us as we build a better railway for Britain.
“We know that a more diverse workforce helps increase productivity and creativity and will help us deliver on our multi-billion pound railway upgrade plan over the coming years.”