Girls aren't well represented in marketing materials


Otago Polytechnic’s research on girls’ attitudes to engineering has recommended significant changes to outreach programmes, published material and online media.

Engaging girls with engineering

Following a successful engagement with a girls’ school in 2017 – run as part of Engineering e2e’s Secondary-Tertiary Pathways Project (STPP) – Otago Polytechnic’s STPP team decided that the next year they would focus on engaging girls with engineering.
See case study: Engaging girls with engineering activities

Research project looks at girls’ attitudes

In view of this changed emphasis, the STPP team launched a research project aimed at finding out about: girls’ perceptions of engineering; whether the school environment influences their awareness of and attitudes to engineering; and the potential barriers to engineering study for girls.
See case study: Researching girls' attitudes to engineering

The research team was particularly interested in finding out where students were getting their information from, what was important to them as they considered future career options, and how marketing approaches from polytechnics interacted with this.

The survey

The team surveyed 40 students (two co-educational and one single sex school) across three Dunedin secondary schools.  The survey results showed some interesting trends which replaced some of their earlier assumptions.

It was assumed that secondary school students might not have a good understanding of what engineering is, but while “maths and physics” was the top response to a question about what qualities or attributes an engineer needs, there was a wide variety of answers, including curiosity, passion, teamwork, leadership and problem-solving skills.

There were more responses saying that engineers need creative and innovative thinking skills than there were mentioning logic. This is important, as it shows that overall students had a really good understanding of the range of attributes required to be a successful engineer.

Other interesting findings included the fact that nearly as many students (23) mentioned getting careers information from online sources such as Google or Facebook as mentioned their schools or teachers (24).

Student career decisions generally made by Year 12-13

Students also indicated that by Year 12 and 13 they have generally made up their minds about future study and career paths. Over 90% of Year 12-12 students indicated that they already had study plans in place for after high school. By contrast, 65% of Year 9 and 10 students had no plans for after leaving school.

Many of the Year 12-13 students were studying the subjects required for entry into engineering programmes but were still not considering engineering study. This suggests that information about engineering careers needs to be made available earlier rather than later.

Marketing materials

The project undertook a review of marketing material from institutes of technology and polytechnics (ITPs) delivering Level 6 and/or 7 engineering qualifications. This included their various pamphlets as well as online media.

Senior Lecturer Hana Cadzow says that most of the ITP marketing materials did poorly in representing women. “If there was an image of a man and woman, it would often show the man holding, for example, a document and appearing to be explaining to the woman. It also became apparent that there was a significant imbalance in who was represented in marketing materials.”

As an example, the study found that in June 2018 if someone navigated from the landing pages to the programme pages for the New Zealand Diploma in Engineering and Bachelor of Engineering Technology qualifications across six ITPs, they would see a total of 26 engineering images. In these images there were 32 identifiable men, 2 pairs of hands unidentifiable as male or female, and only one image featuring a woman.

We risk reinforcing ideas about engineering

Hana notes that research shows women, from secondary school onwards, don’t envisage themselves in engineering careers. “The concern is, that by showing images of engineering as a field dominated by men, we risk reinforcing this idea. It’s particularly problematic that our online media is so one-sided considering that the survey results show young women are often looking online for their careers information.

“Marketing material needs to be deliberately tailored towards people we want to attract. Much of what we looked at was more likely to deter women.”

Going forward

The results of the research project have indicated some significant changes may be required to represent Level 6 and 7 engineering study as attractive to women. There is also scope for more research through expanding the survey participation and running focus groups in schools.”

“Visually signalling to young women that the engineering industry is a place which welcomes and values them will be really important going forward.”

Our thanks to Hana for her time and advice; if you have any queries please contact

June 2019