Creativity and collaboration as a means to engage women in engineering?

Last week I attended Inside Government’s “Promoting Women in STEM” forum in Manchester. It was great to spend a day with like-minded people, discussing the challenges associated with achieving greater gender diversity in STEM related jobs and education. Helen Wollaston, Chief Executive of the Women in Science and Engineering campaign ( ) highlighted the leaky pipeline, with girls disengaging from STEM subjects at an early age and only 9% of women going on to study STEM subjects at degree level. The WISE campaign have a fantastic set of resources called “People Like Me” that can be used in schools to help engage girls with STEM. Kirsten Bodley from the Women’s Engineering Society ( spoke about unconscious bias and the need to recruit men as allies.

I was particularly struck by Emily Grossman (@dremilygrossman) who gave a very personal account of the challenges she had faced as both an undergraduate and postgraduate student in STEM subjects. Twice she left STEM study, lacking in confidence and feeling like an imposter, despite the evidence that she had the capability to succeed. She asked “am I too sensitive to be successful in STEM”. You can see her TEDx talk on YouTube at:

Emily emphasised the importance of women feeling able to “fit in” in STEM subjects, and argued that STEM needs people with many kinds of qualities including compassion, creativity, collaboration and change. Evidence shows that teams with greater diversity are more successful.

The conference made me reflect on the challenge of encouraging more young women to consider careers in engineering. It’s a problem I have grappled with throughout my academic career, and on which I have seen very little progress.  In schools, students wishing to study engineering at university are firmly pushed down the route of “A” levels in maths and physics. I remember from my own school days being told that an “A” level in Design and Technology “wouldn’t count for anything”.  As a result, young people are often unware of what engineering is when they leave school.  They are unaware of the importance of creativity and collaboration as engineering skills, and they do not see any link between creativity and engineering.

In my opinion, creativity and collaboration are a useful ‘hook’ to attract young women to consider careers in engineering. By focussing on the end applications (design of better products, making a better society, working as part of a team, solving problems) it might be easier to engage girls with STEM subjects. The WISE campaign’s ‘People Like Me’ resources focus on identifying these personal characteristics and linking them to future job roles, and this seems a great way to help young people identify with a future career in STEM.

62% of Creative Arts and Design students are women, so there is clearly no difficulty in engaging women in design and creativity.  Engineering design sits at the boundary between the science of engineering and the creativity of design – so why don’t women choose careers in engineering design?  What is the barrier to women making the leap from design to engineering? I would welcome your views.





One response to “Creativity and collaboration as a means to engage women in engineering?”

  1. Derek Jones avatar
    Derek Jones

    I have to admit that this was one we did swerve slightly with the EqualBITE book – the extent of the problem is so utterly socio-systemic that it might need a box of matches 🙂
    That does make it hard to tackle in any one point of the system – as you note, if it’s not valued in school (even though that value is inverted in HE), it gets quite hard to deal with a received problem.
    But we did come across one or two ideas for how to work across those boundaries. One was around considering an Athena Swann ‘extension’ for professional education – where a professional practice element could be aligned with common goals/agendas, either formally (in courses which support those sorts of elements) or even informally (by using alumni and being a bit more proactive with academic-professional relationships).
    If we could find a cunning way of doing that in the other direction it could be quite interesting.
    PS – I do agree about the creativity approach – this would indeed be a strong vector. Ironically, creativity is (like gender congruence and stereotype threat) also very susceptible to teacher attitude and belief (Craft, 2007).
    But that might also be how the problem could be approached … ?

    Craft, A., Cremin, T., Burnard, P. and Chappell, K. (2007) ‘Teacher stance in creative learning: A study of progression’, Thinking Skills and Creativity, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 136–147 [Online]. DOI: 10.1016/j.tsc.2007.09.003.

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