Although women make up 47% of the UK workforce, only 12% of those working in engineering are female. When it has never been more important to address the engineering skills shortage, International Women in Engineering Day focuses attention on the many opportunities for women in engineering – as well as celebrating the #EngineeringHeroes paving the way for other girls and women in the sector.
With this in mind, DiversityQ spoke to nine technology industry experts about the struggles faced by women in the male-dominated profession and the advice they have for women and businesses to close the gender gap.
Disparity and discrimination
The UK engineering sector faces a huge skills shortfall, estimated between 37,000 and 59,000 engineers, but only 12% of all engineers are women. “As the war for talent intensifies, ensuring women are properly represented in engineering is instrumental in making up this shortfall, especially in light of the Pink Pandemic,” advocates Agata Nowakowska, Area Vice President EMEA at Skillsoft.
“For several reasons, these fields are still male-dominated. And while research consistently puts the number of women comprising these industries at between 10-20%, one only needs to look at the International Space Station for a clear example of this divide in action. Just one of the seven crew members – NASA astronaut Megan McArthur – is female.”
As a result of the disparity within these industries, women who do make it into the workplace often then face systematic bias, as Amitha Jain, Quality Engineering Manager at Egnyte, describes: “Discriminatory hiring, promotion, job assignments and salary are far too common, and we can’t ignore that sexual harassment still occurs in many workplaces and professional environments.”
She adds: “In many organisations, women may also have to cope with the isolation of being one of a generally small number of female engineers – which can be especially difficult if employers don’t have policies that enable female employees to balance family and career responsibilities.”
“While an engineering career is rewarding, it can be intimidating to be the only woman in the room. There will always be that colleague who interrupts you when you are speaking, or who asks you to take the meeting notes because, you know, ‘women are better at that kind of thing’,” agrees Louise Simonds, Engineering Program Director at ConnectWise.
Girls must be encouraged to study STEM
In order to narrow the gender gap within the industry, changes must be made within the education system to prevent gender stereotypes from discouraging girls from studying STEM subjects and following an engineering career.
“Engineering is an amazing career, but unfortunately, not enough young women are encouraged to pursue it,” explains Jain. “Mathematics and science are the bedrocks of the field, but early constructs and influences in the lives of young girls can reinforce gender stereotyping that pushes them away before they get a taste of the joy and rewards of such a path.”
“Research shows that even from primary school age, girls are significantly less likely than boys to view themselves as capable of being an engineer if they wanted to. If we want to see more women in engineering, then we need to change the way we see women and how they see themselves,” adds Nowakowska.
Research from EngineeringUK found that 60% of girls aged 11 to 14 think they could become an engineer if they wanted to; however, in the 16 to 19 age range, just a quarter of girls say they would ever consider a career in engineering, compared to more than half of boys.
Hugh Scantlebury, Founder and CEO at Aqilla, said: “We’re massively supportive of any initiative that promotes equality in civil, mechanical, software and electronic engineering. There is absolutely no reason why women can’t succeed in these and other STEM subjects — and we’ve seen this skills base grow in the UK from GCSE up to graduate and postgraduate level.”
Role models required
In such a male-dominated industry, even girls who studied STEM at school may still consider a career in engineering impossible due to the lack of role models to inspire them. “Seeing more women in leadership roles and positions of influence will inevitably lead to more women joining the industry, as well as more girls hoping to study an IT or tech-related subject at university or in an apprenticeship,” explains Leane Parsons, Change Manager at Node4.
“I think a key reason for the low number of women in technology can be attributed to a lack of role models and mentors; there simply aren’t enough,” adds Svenja de Vos, Chief Technology Officer at Leaseweb Global.
“To change perceptions, more female role models are needed who, supported by practical initiatives like training, open days and internship opportunities, can help to create a good image for the tech industry as a sector that’s fun and rewarding to work in. As our world becomes increasingly defined by tech, now is the time for the tech industry to create and elevate more female role models who can open the way for young girls to follow in their footsteps.”
How can this be achieved?
Businesses have a huge part to play in reducing the disparity within the engineering industry. “Organisations should identify more talented women and the best career paths to accelerate their growth and progression,” advises Nowakowska.
“When there are few or no female candidates to consider, they must also ask themselves why, and change the approach accordingly – developing programmes that identify, support and develop female talent.”
“We can all do a lot more than we realise to minimise and mitigate bias and prejudice. Think about how you recruit, manage or simply carry out your day job. Don’t assume: research, educate and inform. Look for new ways to challenge and change,” instructs Debra Danielson, Chief Technology Officer & Senior Vice President of Engineering at Digital Guardian.
These women, who have overcome the barriers and are leading fulfilling careers in the tech and engineering sectors, offer advice to other girls hoping to do the same.
“It’s not for the light-hearted, and you have to be strong and not easily intimidated to overcome bias that you might face, but that’s all part of learning, and you keep at it. Perseverance is important, be confident, believe in yourself and your work, and others will too,” advises Seymour.
“Be curious. Ask a lot of questions (but never the same one twice!). Figure out what you love to do and bring that passion to work every day,” urges Simonds.
“My advice to young girls thinking about a career in tech is to go for it. The most important thing is to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, speak up in large groups of men and put your ideas out there. Find an organisation that puts everyone – regardless of gender – on an equal playing field and pushes you into a role where you challenge yourself and those around you.”