‘Girls can’t be engineers’

When it comes to gender and education, have we really made as much progress as we like to think?

Female engineering student working on motorbikeThen and Now

Life in the UK looked a lot different 100 years ago. Back in 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst was serving a three-year prison term for her part in the Suffragette Movement (National Archives, 2013a). Increasing the proportion of girls studying engineering probably wasn’t at the forefront of her mind, but to be fair, she had bigger fish to fry.¹ Later that decade, things started to change. Women won the right to vote, and in 1919 the Women’s Engineering Society was formed (Women’s Engineering Society, 2013). Nevertheless, the technical education of most young women during the 1920s was more likely to centre on needlework than on engineering (National Archives, 2013b).

Fast forward to 2013, and the education system has changed dramatically. University Technical Colleges (UTCs) that specialise in engineering offer 14-19 year olds an alternative technical education that is intended to integrate engineering with the core curriculum. The aim is to make learning ‘real and relevant’. Unlike a traditional school, a UTC has industrial partners, and is sponsored by a university and a further education college.

Everyone is equal now?

In light of all this development, some would argue that debates about gender are no longer relevant; that society has moved on. Surely the subject choices students make today are simply an expression of their personal preferences (Hakim, 2000)? But I would argue, having spoken to young women studying engineering at University Technical Colleges, that society’s approach to education is not as progressive as we may like to think.

Standing up to the backlash

UTCs have a disproportionately small number of female students. On revealing their intention to move to an engineering UTC, many of the young women we spoke to faced a negative backlash from students at their previous school.

Female 1 (Year 11 student): He (a male student) wrote on the UTC Facebook page and put ‘girls can’t be engineers’ and then tagged Amy in it.

Amy (Year 11 student): Yes. It was sort of like a running joke it was classed as like a school for boys so there was a lot of sexist comments and a lot of like ‘girls can’t be engineers’ and things… we seemed to debate every lesson about coming here.

It would appear that many young people still believe that engineering is a male profession. This mindset manifests itself in different ways. For example, female students described how the daily banter sometimes made them feel uncomfortable. In one instance, the male students showed the female members of their class pictures of people accidently injured by engineering machinery.

Year 10 student: The boys showed me all these pictures of people with their arms missing and their face missing and it was just like ‘what if that happens to me?’ so I didn’t like the fact that the boys were showing me all those pictures.

Despite this negativity, the young women were keen to disprove sexist stereotypes and the UTC was supportive of them, actively challenging sexist attitudes towards female students. The teachers met with the male students, and discussed how to treat young women and stop inappropriate behaviour. For their part, the young women talked positively about attending a UTC and were motivated and confident in their engineering ability. They saw themselves as being ‘really determined’ and felt that the negative attitudes from male students spurred them on to work harder and ‘go a bit further’. They felt that they were ‘starting something’ by challenging gender stereotypes and attending an engineering UTC. It is hoped that more young women will follow their lead.

So have things really changed since 1913?

Sure, we have made some progress over the past hundred years. But our findings suggest there is still a long way to go before some educational pathways are free from gender stereotypes. Multiple stakeholders (families, schools, engineering companies, the media and everyone in between) need to reject these gender stereotypes consistently to ensure that subject choice is no longer associated with gender.

There are some largely undocumented reports of women’s involvement in engineering as far back as 1811 when Sarah Guppy patented her bridge piling technique that Thomas Telford requested permission to use (BBC, 2007).

Hayley Limmer & Debra Malpass

CERP research into girls' experiences of studying engineering at UTCs was presented at the 2013 Journal of Vocational Education and Training 10th International Conference. The slides are available here.


  1. BBC. (2007). A modern Victorian Woman.  Retrieved October 18, 2013, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/bristol/content/articles/2006/09/26/sarahguppy_feature.shtml
  2. Hakim, C. (2000). Work-Lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. National Archives. (2013a). Suffragettes. Retrieved October 18, 2013, from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/politics/g9/
  4. National Archives. (2013b). How we were taught. Retrieved October 18, 2013, from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/lesson15.htm
  5. Women’s Engineering Society. (2013). History. Retrieved October 18, 2013, fromhttp://www.wes.org.uk/content/history

Hayley Limmer and Debra Malpass have recently co-authored Breaking the Mould: Young women’s experiences of studying engineering at University Technical Colleges. Request a copy of this paper.

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