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Queen’s University Belfast: Female Student Pipeline in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Target Group
Postgraduate students
Undergraduate students
Initiative Theme
Student recruitment
Initiative institution
Queen's University Belfast
Application type
Athena Swan Initiative
Publication date

Institution and Department: School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Queen’s University Belfast
Author: Professor Karen McCloskey, Paula Dougan, Dr Joe Butterfield, Dr Danielle Soban


Since 2010, the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Queen’s University Belfast has continuously increased female student numbers, consistently keeping their statistics above national averages at close to 20%. This was achieved through engagement with schools, enabling better-informed decisions around subject choices, broadening entry subject requirements to encourage more female applications, and their new Masters programme aimed at attracting a broader range of female applicants to continue STEM careers.

About your organisation

The School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (SMAE) in Queen’s University Belfast was founded in 1912, its first female graduate in 1973, and it appointed its first female academic in 1993. In 2019, women represented 20% academics, 25% researchers and 42% professional services staff (total staff 117). SMAE comprised 31 foundation students (16% female), 757 undergraduates (18% female), 53 postgraduates (19% female) and 91 PhD students (27% female). SMAE offers three accredited BEng or MEng degree programmes in Mechanical, Aerospace and Product Design Engineering in addition to an MSc in Mechanical Engineering with Management. SMAE obtained Athena Swan Bronze in 2010 and has held a Silver Award since 2011.

Purpose of the initiative

The School has a long-standing commitment to increasing women in STEM. This initiative sought to attract more female students to its degree programmes since engaging with Athena Swan in 2010. During self-assessment, they learned that many female school pupils chose to study Chemistry or Biology rather than Physics at A-Level. The entry requirements at that time stipulated Physics with Mathematics, and this diminished the pool of female applicants. The School’s self-assessment also indicated that female school pupils (A-level) were unaware of the opportunity to take foundation degrees in a local further education college, which enabled progression to the second year of BEng programmes at Queen’s. The School aimed for a sustained increase in the number of female students on both foundation and degree programmes, as well as the excellent academic performance of the females that took these pathways. It was recognised that progress would be measured over the medium term.

Description of the initiative

It remains a priority at SMAE to engage with school pupils and students at all stages of the academic pipeline, sharing engineering as an attractive career with a specific focus on females. They have placed a strong emphasis on addressing the stereotypes traditionally associated with societal roles to ensure that people understand that pathways into STEM are open to all genders. To support this priority over the last 12 years, SMAE actions have included: 

  • Removing the Physics A-Level pre-condition to allow pupils to select Biology or Chemistry (where female numbers are traditionally higher) to accompany Mathematics as entry requirements for their degree programmes.
  • Focussing on alternative routes to higher education through collaboration with a local further education college (Belfast Metropolitan College). This is an important component of the widening participation agenda, enabling access for students from non-traditional backgrounds. 
  • Intentionally featuring female students and academics as role models in promotional materials, school visits, open days, recruitment/conversion activities and website & social media outlets. 
  • Surveying undergraduate engineers to understand their reasons for taking the STEM pathway. 
  • Identifying that a general interest in STEM and the influence of passionate STEM teachers are reasons for choosing engineering. 
  • Working with teachers and careers advisors to enhance awareness of their impact on the career choices of young women and to highlight STEM careers. 
  • Developing a new MSc degree in Mechanical Engineering with Management allowing applications from Mathematics or Physics backgrounds, thereby diversifying the pool of possible female applicants and opening pathways for individuals to up-skill or re-skill. 
  • Actively recruiting and supporting the progression of female academics, recognising that support for advancing careers in STEM not only benefits individual women, but also provides role models and mentoring opportunities at all levels in the pipeline.


SMAE has aimed to increase the number of women in the School since 1973 when the first female student graduated. It would be 20 years before they recruited their first female academic staff member! The under-representation of women in STEM is a universal issue and SMAE worked purposefully to create an environment where studying and working in STEM would be an attractive option for female students. Their approach in working on the pipeline challenge and not simply focussing on their own entry points, has been a key to their success in terms of growing female numbers.


In SMAE, student data is reviewed annually, using a gender lens as part of commitments to Athena Swan and gender equality. This analysis demonstrates the success of actions. 

  • One of the degree pathways (Product Design Engineering) reached near gender parity (45% female) in 2019/20 from 27% in 2015/16.
  • In 2019/20, the student community was 18% female (from 11% in 2010)
  • In 2019/20, the new undergraduate intake was 24% female.
  • Female participation in the Foundation Programme rose from 14% in 2015/16 to 26% in 2017/18. Unexpectedly, this fell to 16% in 2019/20 and the School continues to analyse and address this issue as a continuing part of the initiative
  • The number of female Masters students doubled from 2015/16 to 2019/20, representing an increase from 14% to 19%.

Since their first female academic appointment in 1973, SMAE now has a female Head of School and a female Director of Education. Their academic cohort now includes 3 female Professors, 4 female Senior Lecturers, and 4 Lecturers. From their student cohort right through to each of the academic levels within the progression framework, SMAE has seen improved female representation. This validates the pipeline approach with all of their female statistics on an upward trajectory.

Key barriers and facilitators

Strong commitment to gender initiatives from consecutive Heads of School and School leadership has been key to sustained successes. The initiative continues to be facilitated by committed staff and students who consider increasing the number of women in STEM to be a priority. Engagement with schools and members of the public through a portfolio of outreach activities has been mainstreamed over many years. This has included visits to and from primary and secondary schools across Northern Ireland. The School has partnered with industrial collaborators on this (and other EDI) initiatives. For example, School/Industrial top-ups of postgraduate study stipends have been provided to mitigate the difference between the normal stipend and typical graduate salaries. Students have testified that this significantly impacted their decision to pursue postgraduate study in the School. The School also invites top performing students (female and male) to an annual postgraduate recruitment dinner; this is an opportunity to attract students to further STEM study. In 2015/16, no females attended the event compared with 11 female attendees in 2018/19. The 50% female PhD student intake in 2017/18 indicates that ongoing initiatives are achieving an impact. Student staff ratios (SSR) have been a challenge at SMAE. Teaching and administrative loads have challenged staff in terms of maintaining momentum with their gender-based initiatives; however, this has been recognised by the university who is addressing SSRs. This also creates an opportunity to improve female statistics through academic staff recruitment, in addition to SMAE’s successes in female progression.

The future?

The initiative is now permanently embedded in SMAE culture and actions will continue. For example, the IMechE UAS Challenge team (which was led by a female Aerospace Engineer) completed a COVID friendly outreach program where over 60 secondary schools were invited to share their experiences in developing an un-manned air system (UAS) through a series of YouTube videos and social media posts. Continued and increased use of social media platforms to communicate with school pupils and their teachers (co-delivered with SMAE students) is ensuring that the ongoing work on our initiative is up to date and reaching the target audiences.

Advice for other members

SMAE’s initiatives required dedication and the management of expectations to acknowledge medium to long term impact, rather than short-term. The School would advise other charter members to: 

  • Consider engagement with school students as early as possible and include primary level educators in their outreach activities.
  • Directly connect with secondary school pupils and their teachers to understand the landscape of study at A-level (or equivalent) as well as the level / relevance of careers advice that students are receiving.
  • A dual approach of (1) advising pupils/teachers on entry requirements for STEM careers before subjects are chosen AND (2) review whether entry requirements can be updated by the university, is needed.
  • Partnership and collaboration with further education colleges is recommended to provide alternative entry pathways to STEM degrees. Harnessing the expertise and support of educators in both settings is a powerful way of reaching a broader spectrum of future students.
  • Support for recruitment and progression of female academic staff is critical for addressing pipeline issues and for medium and long term continuous success.

Web Links: 

News Story Exemplars Highlighting Female Achievements and Activities at SMAE: 

SMAE Team Anthus Success (Female lead) 
STEM Outreach, Stranmillis Primary School 
Faculty Innovation Event For Female Students 
Female Graduate of The Year 
Graduation Day 
Lauren McGarry – Space School 
Outreach: Build a Plane Project 

Social Media Exemplars: 

STEM Camp 
IMechE UAS Challenge Featuring QUB Team Lead, Rose McClelland 

YouTube Videos:

STEM Outreach Video SMAE Team Anthus 
Team Anthus at UAS competition (Female lead)

Advance HE shares a range of practice and approaches to charters awards. Case studies/example applications illustrate one approach to race/gender equality work but there are a variety of successful approaches and we recommend charter members consider their local evidence-base and context when deciding how to advance equality in their setting.