woman wearing a white lab coat working on an engineering project, International Women in Engineering Day

By Stefania Leone, Staff Product Manager at Databricks

In June 1919, the UK’s National Council of Women founded the Women’s Engineering Society – a group dedicated to the training and employment of women in technical and engineering work following the First World War.

A century later, however, only 11% of all engineers in the UK are women, the lowest percentage across Europe.  There has been an increase in diversity and inclusion efforts generally in recent years, but clearly there are barriers still in place that are keeping the number of women in engineering at a worryingly low level.

Encouraging women through education

A recent study found that when asked to draw a mathematician, girls were twice as likely to draw a man, highlighting the extent to which our society is stuck in harmful gender conformities and stereotypes.

While we are no longer telling young women that they aren’t able to or shouldn’t pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), there is an alarming difference in how confident young people are when it comes to engineering careers. Research from Engineering UK found that while 55% of boys aged 16 to 19 would consider a role in engineering, only 33% of girls felt the same, despite 94% of girls in the same age range agreeing that engineering is suitable for both boys and girls. There is something holding young women back and while it’s clear that the girls feel that engineering is a possibility for them, the confidence and desire to enter this space doesn’t seem to be there. For me personally, a lack of representation has a huge role to play in this. The more women that work in engineering, the better – they can inspire younger generations, trailblaze paths that others can follow, and be mentors to those that need guidance, all of which should help contribute to more women pursuing STEM roles in future.

Being the role model women deserve

Studies have found that women at university level are more likely to pursue a career in STEM when they are assigned female professors rather than male ones. During my studies, I was exposed to a number of female educators and surrounded by other female students too – seeing other people like me helped to keep me motivated and driven. My experience has shown that women attract women. For women in engineering, the lack of visibility of women in the sector is likely having long term ramifications. It’s the responsibility of women in these positions to act as role models and educate. It’s on us, the women, the leaders, and the educational system to show future generations that a career in engineering is desirable and a highly rewarding and stimulating place to be. After all, we’re the ones already doing it, so we’re best placed to tell our story and share our vision.

Beyond us as individuals educating and encouraging young women, organisations need to take more action to pass on knowledge and support and champion staff internally. For example, Databricks has its own Women in Technology mentorship programme which encourages women to share their experience with junior members of the team to empower them and help accelerate their progression. On top of programmes such as these, organisations should start to think about the kind of role models that they are offering their people. Our managers are really important for our career development – having someone who is not only motivating and shares their experience and knowledge but also enables the team to feel psychologically safe, to take risks and make their own decisions, is key.

Seeing someone who looks like you, and has had similar experiences, in a senior position will help women to both enter and aim high in engineering – for this reason, it’s critical we have more women in these positions to encourage other women and influence organisations to give back and be more accessible. I try to be a role model to the young women at work, my mentees but also in my personal life, to my daughter and her friends. There is a long way to go, but we must pave the way for future generations to show them that technology and engineering is the place to be – for everyone – and that it can also be combined with personal goals like a family. Representation is one of the key things that is going to drive women into engineering roles; if we want to see further positive change, we must take action and be the change we want to see. The problem isn’t going to fix itself.