A Scottish university has received funding to investigate why gender equality in the mechanical engineering profession is lagging behind similar industries.

Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and Nile University in Egypt have received £25,000 to identify the factors that influence career choice and progression in the sector.

According to research, the participation rate for women in mechanical engineering degree courses rose sluggishly from 8 per cent in 2012 to just 10 per cent in 2016.

This is against a background where the number of women accepted into full-time STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – undergraduate courses rose by 49 per cent between 2010 and 2020.

Two hundred men and women to take part in study

Funded by the British Council’s Gender Equality Partnership scheme, the 12-month project will form two parallel networks in the UK and Egypt and will include 100 women at various stages of the career “pipeline” – from undergraduates to the most senior levels of the profession.

The networks will be complemented by 100 men at similar career stages. Once formed, the groups will share the challenges and opportunities they have faced in their careers, underpinned by periodic surveys aimed at identifying the “blockages” in the pipeline.

The UK network will be formed from undergraduates, postgraduates and graduates of Heriot-Watt University.

Dr-Judith-Abolle. Supplied/Heriot-Watt University.

Project lead Professor Bob Reuben from Heriot-Watt’s School of Engineering and Physical Sciences, said: “Currently, we don’t see anywhere near as much growth in participation rate amongst women in mechanical engineering even when compared with other areas of engineering.

“We want to unpack equality of opportunity and participation rate and, if we can, break any negative feedback loops that we can identify by publishing our findings and raising awareness through our network which we hope will become self-propagating at the end of the study period. 

“Do female university applicants not see modern mechanical engineering as a potentially fulfilling career?

“Is there a societal bias about the subject? Has the environment in peer groups at school, university and in the workplace changed over the past decade?

“We’re not sure but we want to know so that we can try to accelerate the pace change as it affects our subject.”

Dr Irene Samy Fahim, head of the Smart Engineering Systems Research Center at Nile University, said: “We are looking forward very much to this project.

“There are some clear cultural differences between Scotland and Egypt, but our discipline faces the same challenges.”

The findings are expected to be published at the end of 2023.