21st century women turn away from their old roles

The demographics of sectors are set to change as traditionally male arenas attract new female talent. Philip Whiteley reports

A comprehensive survey of the world of work, released this month records sharp rises in women entering finance, IT and the sciences. In three years there has been a 61 per cent jump in women entering finance professions, 44 per cent in life sciences and 30 per cent in IT (News, 19 September).

The Women into Science and Engineering group (Wise) welcomed the findings in the Department for Education and Employment report, Employment Now, which tallies with its own records. Since its inception in 1984 it has charted an increase in women science and engineering undergraduates from 7 per cent of all students to 15 per cent.

‘Female’ sector drain

The figures raise interesting questions for employers. The growing number of women going into technological professions – as well as finance – may have contributed to the brain drain from the public sector. There have been serious recruiting difficulties in traditional “female” roles, such as nursing and social work. In social services in particular, there is a serious skills shortage as the supply of graduates dries up. Some local authorities report vacancy levels at about 30 per cent.

And what do these developments mean for personnel as a profession? Its ranks tended to be dominated by women, particularly at junior grades. But it is too early to say whether chartered status and a push for a more strategic role in business will give it a more masculine edge.

“We have a different pattern of representation between men and women at different levels,” says Dinah Worman, equal opportunities adviser at the CIPD. “But that is more or less what happens in other professions. At more senior levels there is less representation from women.

“There are a lot of women coming into the profession at ground level but often women’s attention in life is diverted to other things.”

She argues that all professions benefit from a good balance. “In nursing, for example, the perception is that they are all women, but the profession wants to attract men as well.”

Dilys Winn, head of HR at Worcestershire County Council, agrees there is a reduction in people training for social work but adds that there is a drain away from large employers in all sectors. “Bigger corporations are not getting the talent either. Graduates are going for the bright new, small innovative companies where they feel culturally at home.”

Worman adds, “You have to think about which industries have had the most growth. There has been a huge growth in IT and in the development of financial services. Most jobs that arise now are more suited to women; they are in the services sector.”

This is borne out in the report, which chronicles the continued decline in manual professions. Farm workers, painters and decorators and welders have fallen sharply; on the other hand, some traditional female occupations such as secretaries have also been affected.

Technologically aware

“We are finding that girls and women are more interested in technological subjects, possibly because young women now were born with computers – they are entirely natural to them,” says Marie-Noëlle Barton, national manager of Wise.

The activities of Wise itself will have also had an impact. It has worked intensively in schools – including primary schools – as it argues that the stereotyping of genders sets in early.

Motivation for going into engineering is often different among women than among men, Barton reports. “On the positive side they tend to mention that it is well paid; there are opportunities to work abroad and it is rewarding. They also see the human aspect, which perhaps men do not see so much. I do not want to stereotype but they are more likely to talk about helping people by building a car or a microwave or a baby incubator.”

Skills gap pull

Certain factors are pushing the employment of more women. Simple demographics is forcing recruiters to attract mature women, as unemployment falls and skills shortages increase. Construction, for example – which probably has the most male image of all – has made a concerted push for women to join up in recent years.

Diversity also affects the method of recruiting, the CIPD points out. Worman says employers must not stick rigidly to the conventional career path. Many people – especially women but not exclusively so – may have taken career breaks for caring responsibilities or other reasons, but this should not count against them.

Moreover, there is the legislative push from the raft of recent law extending maternity leave, introducing Parental Leave and shortening the working week. Workplaces will become more friendly for women – whether the employer wants it or not.

Moves to offer more family-friendly arrangements have begun to appear in engineering, reports Barton of Wise. “Far more employers are getting into the 20th century – if not quite the 21st,” she says.

“The benefits are great, because if you train someone and they stay with you, then you get all that investment back.”

Case study: Claire Grisaffi works as an engineer’s assistant for TrackForce, which is responsible for installing and maintaining the London Underground track infrastructure. She is one of only nine women in a company with 350 staff. Of these nine, only two work in technical areas.

She became interested in engineering after doing work experience in a clinical engineering department which supplied communication systems to children with cerebral palsy.

Her job is divided between time spent on site writing a log of the shift, and in the office, booking resources and updating the mobilisation programme. She has a place to read engineering at Cambridge. After university she hopes to work in civil engineering, helping to build the infrastructure in developing countries.

Source: Women into Science and Engineering

www.engc.org.uk/wise , www.witec.org.uk

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