Jennifer McCartney, project engineer at National Grid Countdown to COP, Energy networks, Generation, Policy & regulation, Skills, Strategy & management, Water, Opinion

To mark International Women In Engineering Day, Jennifer McCartney of National Grid shares her thoughts on how utilities can attract more young females into the sector.

I’ve been at National Grid for nine years within engineering roles in different parts of the business, including on our interconnector projects for around four years. While there has no doubt been a shift to attract more women to engineering, the gender imbalance across the industry is still stark and for me, when I look at the lack of diversity in engineering, this issue needs to be tackled by looking at how we make the idea of engineering more accessible and appealing to young girls.

We know the STEM pipeline problem starts at school and runs through to degree level, with not enough students opting for physics and maths, two key subjects for engineering. As a result, at every stage beyond GCSEs we are losing young women – they make up just 22 per cent of A level physics students, 8 per cent of STEM apprentices and 15 per cent of engineering and technology graduates.

Part of the challenge is that a career in engineering doesn’t immediately resonate with many people including young school children. It can be difficult to grasp what it actually means to be an engineer and the huge variety of roles that fall within the profession. Understanding the basics of what a job in engineering involves and sparking an interest in it from a young age is crucial – by the time they’re at university or beyond it can be too late.

So, what can government, businesses, schools, teachers and other groups do to help tackle this? It’s such an exciting time to get into engineering and forge a career in this space. With climate change at the forefront of the UK agenda, there’s going to be a huge demand for engineers from a range of backgrounds to tackle the vast number of projects that are needed to combat the climate crisis.

Engaging with schools sounds like a no brainer but there are a few different ways that this can be done to really try to inspire and engage the next generation. Businesses can participate in school career days and make sure that when they do, female engineers are part of this to show young girls how they too can become engineers. This type of activity provides a great chance to highlight role models in the profession and provide insight into what a day as an engineer can look like.

Businesses can also consider creating education centres on project sites which can help school children visualise engineering and the scale of work being done. For example, our North Sea Link interconnector site in Blythe invited schools to visit its education hub which provided opportunities to demonstrate the concept of an interconnector, including convertor stations and huge subsea cables, how they work and why they are so important to the UK’s net zero ambitions. Working with communities that are local to project sites can really help enhance our reach and bring engineering to life in a more tangible way.

There are also events and workshops such as STEM skills sessions or competitions that can inspire engineers of the future, and get them to really think about today’s problems and challenges and how they can overcome them. If we take tackling climate change, there are a number of obstacles to overcome in the years and decades ahead, and there’s lots the energy sector can be doing to get young girls engaged in engineering solutions through fun activities, skills development and events.

In addition to this, there needs to be the right support and access to role models that can help those interested in engineering pursue the profession. My route into engineering was inspired by a family member who was an engineer, so I had access to a role model early on. Promoting and celebrating engineering role models is vital to helping young girls feel empowered to take on future engineering challenges – International Women in Engineering provides a platform for shining a light on inspirational female engineers, reaching girls and women globally. We’ve seen the success this can have through campaigns such as ‘This is Engineering’ run by the Royal Academy which highlighted a greater number of female engineers than ever before and prompted 19 per cent of students to switch to a STEM subject.

As we look to climate challenges ahead and the engineering innovation and talent we will need, addressing the gender imbalance and attracting bright female talent is crucial. Achieving this will require collaboration between industry partners, government, regulators, trade unions, NGOs, education institutions and campaigning groups on three key actions; building a strong talent pipeline from a young age; ensuring that young female talent have an accurate and informed perception of what a career in engineering means, and highlighting visible role models throughout school years to help empower and encourage girls considering this route.