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Each year International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated on March 8, with the first day being held in 1911.

Thousands of events occur to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women. Organisations, governments, charities, educational institutions, women’s groups, corporations and the media celebrate the day.

This year’s theme is #BreakTheBias – which looks actively call out gender bias, discrimination and stereotyping each time you see it.

To mark International Women’s Day we spoke to Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, Chief Executive Officer and President of NMITE; Samantha Lewis, Director of HR, NMITE; and Gary Wood, Academic Director, NMITE about their thoughts on the day and #breakthebias.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

Elena Rodriguez-FalconElena: International Women’s Day is an important day when we remind ourselves of how far we’ve come in terms of gender equality and gender inclusion. It’s a moment to celebrate each other, to celebrate women’s achievements, to raise each other up. But unfortunately, it’s also a day when we must reflect on all the obstacles we still have to overcome, and the gaps that we still need to bridge. And if I were to be really, honest, I would prefer if we didn’t have an International Women’s Day, because that would mean that we achieved what we needed to achieve.

Do you feel there are barriers and biases within the engineering industry that prevent women from achieving their full potential? If so, what?

Elena: Yes, of course. There are always barriers and indeed for women in engineering profession, a prevalent bias is that women won’t be able to be committed the same way as men because of their caring responsibilities, which women still largely have. It’s also important though, to mention that we’ve come a long way since days where that was completely a fact. There are many things we’ve done to prevent that. But there is also a reality. There aren’t enough women in engineering. And, one of the reasons is because we, as women, have clear biases about the profession. We worry about whether we will be the only woman in the workforce, and often it’s true. I worry about the gender pay gap, and that is often true still, unfortunately. So, I think that the better question is, what can we do to break the bias and get more women into the profession?

Samantha LewisSamantha: I do. I spent 16 years in manufacturing. I think it’s still perceived by many as a man’s game. The perception is its oil, and rags, and spanners. And engineering isn’t just that. engineering is so much more. And I think if we can expose engineering in its entirety to more women, more women will be attracted to the trade, and that shift could then slowly happen. I think there’s a lot of people that still believe women should stay at home and raise the children, men go and do the engineering roles. And that isn’t the same anymore. Women, they’re curious, they have passion, they have grit, they have determination. And all of those are things that make a good engineer. They’re not traits that are just seen in men. So, the more we can expose females to what engineering really is, the more we can change that perception.

What more should be done to #BreakTheBias and encourage women to pursue STEM subjects as a profession?

Elena: This is one of the most important questions, but also the most difficult one. If you look around, we have serious problems in terms of poverty, climate change, we’re experiencing a worldwide pandemic and we need engineers, scientists, mathematicians to help us solve these problems and others. But the reality is that we don’t have enough engineers.

The number of women who graduate from engineering is such a small proportion and the number who practice engineering is even smaller. And professional engineering bodies like the Royal Academy of Engineering, have created massive campaigns and resources to educate the educators, train the parents, the careers advisors, and so on. And those are working to some extent. There is so much more that can be done though, and that’s the challenge. We still haven’t cracked it and the next step includes everyone being involved.

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What is NMITE doing to #BreakTheBias and encourage more women to study engineering? 

Elena: Our female engineers and colleagues are working on outreach activities, marketing, and student recruitment to ensure we are present and sharing what we have achieved and can achieve. We have looked at the barriers to entry to higher education. One of them is A-level math, for example, which we’ve removed, reducing the funneling that often happens. We’ve looked at investing heavily on female campaigns to ensure that young people out there and their parents can better understand the profession. Also, we have female only bursaries, which is very uncommon, and I think is incredibly important to celebrate. The most important and I think more transformational contribution that NMITE is making to gender balance and gender representation is our pedagogical model, in which we ensure that it’s hands on learning, problem based learning with different industries and sectors represented so that there is a variety of experiences that people out there could experience. Hopefully it will attract more diverse engineers and certainly more women.

Samantha: We are making ourselves known as a brand, where we’re working within the community. We don’t require maths or physics A levels. We look at characteristics and traits more than just subjects and grades. Grades are important, but so are what makes that individual and what makes them become an engineer.

So, the determination, grit, passion, that need to succeed, all those traits can be seen in both females and males. Hopefully, that will open the door to attract more females into engineering. We’re looking at ways we can attract females. We are hopefully going to have the women’s bursary or females bursaries to attract them.

We are working with schools and colleges. We’re hoping diversity breeds diversity. So the more females we can attract, that will attract more females. So our staff is 50/50 gender-balanced. Our student cohort aims to be 50/50 gender-balanced because we want people to feel comfortable. So it doesn’t matter who you are, what your background is, male or female; it doesn’t really matter. We want people to belong here across the whole board.

Are you personally doing anything to #BreakTheBias and champion equality, diversity and inclusion, both in general and within your role at NMITE?

Elena: Absolutely. This has been a lifelong ambition of mine to help and contribute to getting more women into engineering. I’m a member of the Advance HE Strategic Advisory Board on Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion. I chair the board of trustees of the Engineering Development Trust, which is an organization that works with young people to raise aspirations. I also often lead on national debates. For example, last year, I challenged the professional engineering bodies to change the name of the profession to call engineers “ingeniators”. And the rationale was that in other languages, the word ‘engineering’ comes from ingenuity and innovation. And of course, in English, it sounds as if it comes from an engine. And that caused a huge debate, which, of course, also makes engineering a bit more visible.

But more personally, I participate in talks with young people. I talk to peers and parents, and I’m often at the forefront of those conversations. And of course, leading NMITE is one of the most important activities that I can do personally, so that I can raise awareness of engineering and of the value of engineering in the world.

What advice/words of wisdom would you give to your younger self and to aspiring female engineers, to help overcome biases?

Elena: When I was at university and deciding what to study, I was considering medicine, but I discovered that I didn’t like blood. So, I decided to do something else, which would allow me to help people. So, what I would tell my young self is that engineering is a caring profession. It’s not often how people understand engineering, but without engineering, we wouldn’t have the tools that are used in practicing medicine or the tools to do nursing or the tools to make vaccines. And that is something that I would’ve liked someone to tell me.

What I would say to young people now, particularly this generation who are really worried about their future, is that if you want to be part of the change that you want to see, consider engineering, because then you will have a very important role to play to help save the world.

Gary WoodGary: I’d remind everybody that biases exist in the minds of people. And so, in that sense, they’re relatively easy for us to overcome, we just need change our thinking. We must be able to challenge our thinking and be willing to follow our passions and interests. And I think that as more and more women do that, then it becomes easier for more women to follow in their footsteps. We need to have people who are prepared to challenge the bias by being the future that they want to see, then other people (both men and women) in the profession can help with that by supporting and recognizing that they need to play a part in making this a comfortable, and safe, and supportive environment for everybody around them to work in. And through that, we can then start to pave the way for more women being able to follow and come into the profession.