By Daniel Hunter

Young girls are 'switched off' a career in engineering by the age of 14 with many having an 'unconscious bias' by the age of just seven, according to Network Rail.

As a result, Network Rail has pledged to change its approach in an attempt to boost the number of female engineers.

Focus groups with schoolgirls across the country revealed a watershed age of 11 to attract girls into engineering as a career. The ‘Switch On, Switch Off’ research, undertaken by InnovationBubble for Network Rail, showed a key window of opportunity to interest girls with pre-secondary school girls most open to becoming an engineer, responding strongly to female role models and a career with a social value such as rail.

The study found that girls aged 7-9 were switched off by thinking engineering was 'too dirty and messy' but switched on by understanding the social purpose of engineering.

Girls aged 10-12 were worried that engineering is dangerous and that they weren’t strong enough but responded positively to role models in engineering. Girls aged 13-15 thought it was unglamorous and unsocial but liked the opportunity to stand out with a different career choice.

It is hoped thousands of girls will be encouraged to consider working on the railways as Network Rail pledged to use the research findings to boost its schools programme. By 2018, some 3,000 teenage girls at five schools in Milton Keynes, the home of Network Rail’s national centre with 3,000 employees, will receive careers advice on working on the railways alongside school programmes run at a local level across the country. It will also continue to find and appoint role models among its staff to serve as ambassadors for women working on the railways.

Network Rail will roll-out a work experience scheme supported by Barclays which will roll out in the new school year. The company will also run a series of open evenings at training centres targeted at women, showcasing roles, introducing applicants to staff and building confidence to apply for engineering roles. In a further bid to shift the gender balance, Network Rail will work with the campaign group Women in Science, Technology and Engineering (WISE) to increase understanding of why girls often reject careers in these fields.

Chief engineer for Network Rail, Jane Simpson, said: “If my school careers adviser had her way, I would have become a nursery nurse or teacher but I wasn’t willing to accept being pigeon-holed like that.”

Jane joined the engineering industry as an apprentice aged 16 and is now Network Rail’s most senior engineer, managing a 500+ strong team of engineers and technicians across Britain.

She added: “Role models are crucial to show girls and women what’s possible and where their potential can take them. I was lucky to have a female role model who saw my potential and helped me realise it. Some quite senior men were astonished that I could talk confidently about complex engineering problems, but they soon came to see me for what I could do, not my gender. As the most senior engineer in one of Britain’s biggest engineering companies I know I can help girls along a similar path and be part of something special.”