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Middle aged, male, glasses, high vis jacket and a hard hat? Must be an Engineer

23 November 2017


The stereotype of an engineer is alive and well amongst school children, according to new research by the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

To celebrate the annual Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards, the IET has delved into the perceptions of a ‘typical engineer’. According to a representative sample of children aged 9 to 16, a typical engineer is a white (51%), middle aged (31%) male (67%), with glasses (40%), a beard (27%), short (36%) brown hair (44%), brown eyes (21%), of tall stature (44%) and slim build (42%).

In terms of the tools of the trade he might have at his disposal, 44% thought an engineer would wear a hard hat and 43% believed he would work on a laptop. 40% think he’d wear a high vis jacket and use a mobile phone (40%), and another 39% visualised him wearing protective eye wear and carrying a toolbox (37%).

Shockingly, it appears that school children can’t see the opportunity for future female engineers, with less than one in ten (9%) children imagining the typical engineer to be a woman.

And it seems this outdated stereotyping is being passed down from their parents. When asked to describe a typical engineer, parents returned almost identical answers.

To dispel these engrained ideas of what a typical engineer ‘looks like’, the IET is celebrating the 40th Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards with a campaign to showcase engineering in a completely different light, dramatically highlighting the diverse career opportunities available in the industry through stunning and unexpected imagery.

The IET has commissioned Rankin Studios, renowned for photographing everyone from Kate Moss and Madonna to The Queen, to style and shoot this year’s award finalists as well as previous affiliates in a series of dramatic and thought provoking images. Dubbed ‘Portrait of an Engineer’, the series was shot by award-winning photographer and Rankin protégé Vicky Lawton.

Jo Foster, IET Diversity and Inclusion Manager, said: “These outdated and fixed ideas of what a ‘typical engineer’ looks like are damaging to the industry, especially when the significant shortage of engineers in the UK is posing a serious threat to the economy. Currently only 9%* of engineers are female, the lowest in Europe. And wide ranging reasons have been cited for this lack of women; everything from gender stereotyping and limited female role models to misconceptions about the job itself and parental attitudes.

“Engineering is perceived as masculine, unglamorous and usually depicts people wearing hard hats and overalls. The reality is very different. With this series of beautiful and remarkable portraits we want to break down the visual stereotypes and show that engineering is a diverse and creative career which offers the opportunity to do something life – or even – world changing. It also shows that you don’t need a hard hat or high vis jacket to be a ground breaking engineer.”

Engineering contributed £486 billion to the UK GDP in 2015** and engineering jobs account for 19% of the total UK employment. Despite this, EngineeringUK predicts 186,000 people with engineering skills will be needed annually through to 2024 in order to meet demand.

Rankin added: “I hope ‘Portrait of an Engineer’ inspires other young women to see engineering in a new light and consider it as a future career. These women are great role models, they are strong, smart, and can help change the world with their skills.”

Engineers featured include Roma Agrawal and Yewande Akinola. Roma is a chartered structural engineer who has worked with signature architects during her eleven-year career designing footbridges, towers and sculptures; including six years as a senior structural engineer on The Shard, the tallest tower in Western Europe. 

Yewande Akinola’s engineering experience and responsibilities include the design of sustainable water supply systems and the engineering design coordination of large projects in the built environment. She has worked on projects in the U.K., Africa, the Middle East and in East Asia.

Vicky Lawton, photographer and Rankin protégé, said: “It was important to me to capture each of the women’s individual personalities in the portraits and show that their work is as varied as their characters.  I played on the stereotypes of engineering by using a classic backdrop whilst juxtaposing with chic, modern styling choices. I loved meeting this cool, eclectic group of seriously powerful individuals and translating that determination and inner confidence into the imagery.”

The winner of the IET Young Women Engineer (YWE) of the Year Awards will be announced on 7th December at Savoy Place in London. For more information, please visit the IET YWE website.

Notes to editors:

Physical appearance of a ‘typical engineer’

  • Male - 67% children (9-16) and 73% parents
  • White heritage - 51% children (9-16) and 61% parents
  • Wear glasses - 40% children (9-16) and 56% parents
  • Beard - 27% children (9-16) and 21% parents
  • Short hair - 36% children (9-16) and 51% parents
  • Brown hair - 44% children (9-16) and 68% parents
  • Tall stature - 44% children (9-16) and 58% parents
  • Middle aged - 31% children (9-16) and 63% parents
  • Slim build - 42% children (9-16) and 61% parents
  • Carry / use a laptop - 43% children (9-16) and 54% parents
  • Carry / use a mobile phone - 40% children (9-16) and 47% parents
  • Carry / use a toolbox - 37% children (9-16) and 39% parents
  • Use a computer - 38% children (9-16) and 45% parents
  • Wear a hard hat - 44% children (9-16) and 46% parents
  • Wear a protective eyewear - 39% children (9-16) and 43% parents
  • Wear high vis jacket - 40% children (9-16) and 45% parents