Women in Engineering: How Can We Make The Sector More Inclusive?

Women In EngineeringIn 2016, Engineering UK released its ‘State of the Nation’ report, which highlighted a severe recruitment crisis in the engineering sector.

More people are leaving than entering. And while the estimates vary by quite a large margin — from between 69,000 and 186,000 — what is certain is that the current flow of 46,000 apprentices and undergraduate students is nowhere near enough to fit the demand.

For some time, the UK has leaned heavily on human capital from Eastern Europe. But rising wages back home, and uncertainty over Brexit, has weakened this EU labour force.

In order to solve this crisis, it seems more important than ever for the UK to tap into its abundant pool of natural resources. I am of course talking about women, who actually outnumber men in the British Isles.

UK engineering is woefully failing the female workforce

Britain, historically and now, is a hugely successful country. In many instances, it has been the British who have introduced to the world radical and key new ideas in the name of ‘progress’. Which makes it all the more remarkable (and strange) that the UK lags behind so many other countries when it comes to equality in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.

The UK has the lowest proportion of women in engineering out of any European country at 11 per cent. Indeed, even many North African countries, such as Algeria and Tunisia, have greater gender parity, and far to the East, India and Malaysia also welcome more women into their ranks than the UK does.

What are the reasons for this disparity? Many theories have been proffered. Some blame the UK government’s previous arms-length relationships with business (which is now changing thanks to the requirement of gender-pay gap reporting); to the cultural differences abroad (for example, some scholars will argue that women are less likely to choose engineering when they have more personal freedoms).

The most popular cause of the problem, however, is thought to be a cultural one; and a particularly Anglo one. That includes the United States, too.

Is culture really the problem?

As mentioned above, as little as 11 per cent of the engineering workforce is female. That means 89 per cent of engineers are male — despite women making up 51 per cent of the population. This is a slight increase for women of 2 per cent over the past two years, which is almost statically slow. Currently, it is estimated that 14 per cent of women are taking STEM subjects at A-level or higher. So things are improving, but what’s been holding women back?

Sarah Peers of the Women’s Engineering Society thinks stereotyping, and an outdated, pro-masculine work structure may be to blame. According to Peers, this problem could be rectified men were given more time off for child-centric duties, such as child-rearing, and not just women. Traditionally, major roles, such as that of CEOs, have not been kind to expecting mothers, or newly mothers, who cannot be available twenty-four hours a day, unlike a male colleague — a disadvantage that, in recent times, has come to be identified as sort of mothering ‘penalty’.

Peers also thinks there is a disconnect between the well-intentioned campaigns from the HR and PR world, meaning their messages are not permeating into the company hierarchies above.

A manifest part of the culture could also lie in the way we broach the topic of engineering to our girls, of which we could look abroad for some positive solutions. For example, the president of Ashesi University in Ghana has achieved an almost 50-50 split in men and women on its computer science programme. One way the University did this was, it claimed, by reframing engineering to mean talking about problem-solving, and how engineering can help to improve the lives of others and the environment.

It has long been suspected that women have subtle innate differences that favour people, whereas men traditionally have favoured ‘things’. Talking about engineering as a way to help people, even by proxy, seems to resonate more with the minority sex.

Are we creating a welcome environment for women?

There is another issue that we may not be entirely comfortable talking about — that is, if men have essentially “shut the door” to female colleagues, either with subconscious biases, or plain old sexism.

It is not unusual for a female engineer to find herself almost alone in her world of work. There may never be a queue for the women’s toilet, and understandably, there is a lack of like-minded individuals to talk to.

This lack of a female presence can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, men might wonder, if there are almost no other women present — then what are these few women even doing here? This can conjure up prejudices or harmful stereotypes that can undervalue, undermine, and overlook female colleagues.

In fact, in one study, 40 per cent of female engineers thought they weren’t treated equally in the workplace. And 60 per cent said they thought male engineers got an easier ride and progressed further.

Perhaps more shockingly, 63 per cent said they had overheard or experienced sexism directed towards them. One engineer, who wished to remain anonymous, posted on Reddit that her male colleagues would inappropriately touch her, and even talk about her sexually when she was in the room.

Old habits die hard and are passed along from one generation to another, but they can be altered. Echoing Sarah Peers, another challenge would be to educate all engineers of the dangers of stereotyping, for a better and more understanding workplace.

Encouraging girls in the school

If one key discovery has been uncovered in the march for engineering gender-parity in recent years, it is that you have to inspire children young.

This goes for girls and boys, of course, but even from very early on, societal structures can send mixed messages about what girls can and cannot do, and what they are expected to do.

It all starts with reframing the study of engineering to that it encourages girls, too. Previously, local campaigns have targeted teenage girls at 16, or when they are doing their A-levels, but it needs to start much earlier. Some campaign groups are employing women engineer role models to give talks to children eight years of age. One organisation, Early Years Engineer, even talks to girls as young as three.

At the moment though, something needs to be done about the presentation of the sciences altogether, for all disciplines; for boys and girls. Just under 1 hour and 30 minutes of science is dedicated to scientific studies in primary school, which is, of course, woeful and needs to change immediately.

The benefits of gender parity in engineering, and the economy at large

To reiterate again how large the gender divide is, consider this shocking fact: there are more CEOs in corporate America named ‘James’ than there are women CEOs altogether.

If there is anyone still hesitant about opening up the engineering world to more women — even despite the current crisis in recruitment —  then perhaps they might want to consider the economic benefits.

It has been found that companies with women on the board perform 54 per cent better than without, which suggests that gender-parity does benefit from some diverse thinking in the upper echelons.

And a World Bank study in May 2018 reckoned that gender pay equality would enrich the global economy by £120 trillion. Currently, it is believed that the inequalities in gender pay, enrolment, and visibility, might even be sucking the UK of as much as 14 per cent of its wealth. A McKinsey report also found that, once women make up a third of a business’s board room members, a trickle-down effect warms the rest of the working culture to women — and there is a financial boost in this instance, too.

One final word…

We should not shy away from doing all that we can to make engineering a welcoming place for women. But we must also not ‘overcorrect’ and alienate men. That could be a ticking time-bomb for the future. We must ‘socially’ engineer a comfortable balance between the gender lines, and open up the sector for everyone, no matter their identity and background.

This article was written by Jayne Fielding of Weldwide, an architectural steel and structural engineering company based in London.