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The future of female engineers

Anna Tomlinson, Head of St Margaret's School for Girls, discusses the school's work with the University of Aberdeen on diminishing gender stereotypes

Posted by Julian Owen | November 15, 2017 | Teaching

We may now have our second female Prime Minister and a female First Minister in Scotland, but the reality is still that men outnumber women in many professions, not least in engineering. According to the Office for National Statistics, women make up just 8% of engineers in the UK compared to a slightly more favourable 20% in the rest of Europe.

As the only girls’ school in Aberdeen, we have long been committed to eradicating gender stereotype around subject and career choice. We are situated in the heart of the North Sea oil and gas industry and engineering often features in the university course choices of our pupils. We were delighted, therefore, in 2016 when the University of Aberdeen approached us to discuss how together we might break down some of the barriers which prevent girls from considering a career in engineering. At our initial meeting, the idea of a ‘Girls into Engineering’ conference was born and we have since held three such events in partnership with our colleagues at the School of Engineering. 

The first conference in October 2016 saw 90 girls from 16 maintained and independent schools come together at St Margaret’s to explore different types of engineering and to take part in diverse hands-on activities. The arrival of Aberdeen University’s student-built racing car in the playground added to the excitement and enthused the whole school community. 

Anna Tomlinson

I am a great believer in the power of role-models for young people and the conference delegates were undoubtedly struck by the stories of current female undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as by the thought-provoking presentations given by women currently working in the oil and gas sector. In their feedback, the girls commented on the number of times speakers mentioned the importance of problem-solving and creativity. Indeed, Professor Ana Ivanovic said, “I believe that the next generation of female engineers has an important role to play in using their creative and teamworking skills to change perceptions of the industry.” Throughout the day, it was abundantly clear that the engineering industry needs individual women to bring their own unique skills and qualities to the workforce, and pupils left with an understanding that engineers come in all shapes and sizes and that diversity is encouraged.

This conference for senior pupils will now run as a biennial event and in the intervening year we shall run an event for primary 7 girls from a range of schools. The success of the junior events reinforced the value of ‘getting in there early’ and addressing gender stereotypes long before subject choices are made. Moreover, it provided a fresh angle on the growth mindset and intellectual character which we encourage in our pupils who, in the midst of a technical challenge, recognised the value of learning from mistakes and developed a stronger rollercoaster ramp as a result!

The partnership we have developed with the School of Engineering at the University of Aberdeen has been a fruitful and joyful venture for both institutions. St Margaret’s staff bring the experience of working with school-age children which complements the engineering expertise of university colleagues, and working together has given us the confidence to be innovative in our approach. Inspired by the success of our collaboration to date, we are now planning a more ambitious venture: a national residential ‘Girls into Engineering’ conference at the University of Aberdeen from July 31 to August 2, 2018, which will be sponsored by Chevron. Interested girls from across the UK will be invited to apply for a place at the conference, which will provide a wonderful opportunity to explore engineering both in a university setting and in the workplace.  


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