Sunday, 3 September 2017

Flights of Fancy - the Challenges of Creating an Appropriate Workforce

25 years before I was born, Amy Johnson started her solo flight from England to Australia. It was a journey of over 10,000 miles. She finally landed some 19 days after leaving the UK. It was a fantastic achievement. She became the first women to fly solo over that distance. Today Emirates (there are other airlines), will do the same journey in 23 hours, and a business class ticket will cost you just £3160. These days it would probably be impossible to replicate exactly Amy’s journey. She put down in places that have now become very troubled and dangerous – Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Syria. Indeed, I am not sure if Aleppo in Syria still has a functioning airport. 

Amy Johnson was an inspirational women – not only did she undertake what must have been fantastically difficult journeys during the 1930s, but she was also an engineer of great repute. She was twice President of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). WES is both a charity and a professional network of women engineers, scientists and technologists. They have a vision of the UK becoming a country where women are as likely as men to choose to study and work in engineering. To this end WES works collaboratively with educators, employers and influencers in creating a diverse engineering community. However, achieving this vision is a challenge.

At my University, we have many examples of the kind of outreach work that can introduce girls to study engineering and think about science, engineering and technology as a career choice. Someone who is as inspirational as Amy Johnson, is our Professor Haifa Takruri-Rizk. For over 20 years she has being researching and teaching in the fields of electronics, mobile networking, and the organisational cultures and workplace practices that support women in science, technology and engineering fields of practice. Her outreach work is very successful and applications by young women to study in these areas have held steady and begun to grow. But there is more that needs to be done.

Encouraging more women to study and work in these areas is critical for the UK's future economic prosperity. In the UK, the proportion of young women studying engineering and related subjects has remained more or less at 16% compared to places like India where around 30% of students are female, and these subjects represent over 30 of all university programmes taught. WES notes that less than 10% of the UK engineering workforce is female compared to countries like Latvia, Bulgaria, Cyprus where 30% of the workforce is female. The shortage of engineers in the UK is now becoming critical and it is estimated that we need to double the number of students and increase the current workforce by 60,000 people with engineering skills. It’s a challenge.

Of course it’s not just in the engineering workforce where gender inequality and representation is to be found. In my professional field of health care, gender balance has been a long standing issue. In medicine, there are some signs of change but it is slight. There are 281,440 doctors registered to practice in the UK. Of these 128,137 are female, but they are outnumbered by men in every field of practice other than General Practice, where there are slightly more females practising as GPs than men. The number of women entering medical school is still slightly higher than men (52%) but there has been a steady decline in overall numbers of women in training over the past 10 years.

In nursing the problem is reversed. The number of men in nursing remains stubbornly low. Only 12% of registered nurses in the UK were male – and this figure has remained constant over the past 5 years. Likewise for those considering nurse education and training, there are just under 12% male student nurses; a figure that has remained constant over the past decade. Just like in the case of engineers, encouraging children to think about nursing as a career and identifying strong role models is key to addressing the issues. And there’s the rub. Try and generate a list of famous and iconic nurses and you almost inevitably go back a long way in time – Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, Edith Cavell and so on, even my favourite, Virginia Henderson, whose legacy in terms of influencing contemporary nurse education and practice, is unlikely to be known outside of the profession. If one tries to identify male role models it becomes even harder. My 2 favourites are Walt Whitman and Phil Barker – but again, with the exception of poetry lovers, these are names that are unlikely to be  known outside the profession. 

Whilst social media is helping, the emergent nurse leaders of today, (and there are many to be found in the world of Twitter, Facebook and so on), don’t have the wider recognition that someone like Amy Johnson did all that time ago. It’s a challenge, and one that all members of the workforce, men and women need to rise to if we are ever going to change things.