Women in engineering – are we doing enough?

Paul Boughton

Susan Dale discusses whether we are doing enough to help women in engineering

It is difficult to read about the state of UK engineering at the moment without stumbling across a comment on the number of women working within the profession. Given that fewer than 10% of engineering professionals in the UK are female (a paltry 6% according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s 2014 annual Skills & Demand in Industry report), it isn’t difficult to see why there is so much debate around the subject. That is the lowest proportion in all of Europe.

This topic became even more prevalent following the Perkins Review, an in-depth analysis of the UK engineering industry published in November 2013 by John Perkins, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Perkins found a serious skills gap within the sector, a rapidly depleting talent pipeline unfit to exploit the opportunities that future technological advances will bring. One of his key messages, not just to the government, but also to employers and professional bodies, was that a concerted effort to attract more women to the field of engineering, and retain them, thus recruiting from a much wider demographic of potential talent, would be an integral factor in the closing of that skills gap.

The efforts so far

There have already been some fairly significant interventions since the review. In June last year, Skills and Enterprise Minister Matthew Hancock announced a £30million fund, part of which will be dedicated to encouraging more women into engineering, with financial support being given to areas such as career progression, conversion training, or returner training. Conversion training is all about enabling women to transfer from other occupations into engineering, whereas returner training focuses on helping women return to engineering after a career break. Speaking at the launch, Hancock stressed the importance of empowering the industry by bringing more women into engineering and supporting employers to develop the workforce of the future.

Minister for Women Nicky Morgan also commented that we need to move away from perceiving engineering as a ‘man’s world’. Without women pursuing careers in engineering, UK companies are missing out on a vast pool of talent.

Another campaign, launched in September last year, is the Industry Led 10 Steps initiative, devised by WISE to ensure that women in STEM have the same opportunities to progress their career as their male colleagues, and to help sustain the pipeline of female talent within the field.

The 10 Steps include pledges around educating leaders and giving them accountability for change, making flexible work a reality, increasing the transparency of opportunities, and treating the retention of women in the same way as any other issue affecting core business. The first 20 signatories of the pledge included some big-hitting executives from some of the largest employers of engineers in the UK, including Thales UK’s CEO, Victor Chavez.

How necessary is all of this?

One of the main arguments against all this investment of time and money into creating a more gender equal engineering workforce is the notion that, instead of worrying about whether an engineer is male or female, organisations should be trying to attract the best talent, regardless of any distinguishing attributes such as race or age or gender. This group of people will refer to ‘diversity gone mad’ – a phrase which suggests the whole concept of needing to recruit more women into engineering is nothing more than a box-ticking exercise.

Is there any merit to those claims? Would our combined efforts be better spent on ensuring the engineering talent pipeline remains full, rather than focussing all our energy on trying to convince women to go into engineering, and firms to take them on? Both options actually answer the same problem; the industry needs more people in order to close the skills gap. Encouraging women into engineering not only presents a wider talent pool to choose from, but also, creates a more culturally open industry that is balanced, a better place to work and an environment where health and well-being is improved.

Diversity is particularly important when it comes to productivity and quality of output as it can help organisations to get a balance of perspective. After all, having people who are carbon copies of each other means you could fall into the trap of doing the same thing over and over again because you look for the same type of person who sees all of the same risks and opportunities. It’s important to remember that you can’t serve your customers properly if you don’t reflect them, and the customer is not always a middle-aged man.

Career or motherhood – a female engineer’s choice?

Clearly there is a strong argument for improving gender diversity within engineering, but regardless of all the investment and media attention which aims to drive more female talent into the field, there is still a significant lack of executive or board-level women in the industry. Many argue that this can be largely attributed to motherhood and the career break that women take for maternity leave. In fact, it is often raised that the engineering community could be doing more to help women come back to work after having children, particularly around increasing their confidence and offering more flexible working arrangements.

What more could be done?

When it comes to tackling the issue of maternity leave as a career block for female engineers, there needs to be a shift in attitudes from seeing it as a problem, to viewing it as an opportunity. A woman returning from maternity leave could bring positive opportunities, such as loyalty and better time management.

Employers need to offer the right training and support to their female staff in order to help them return confidently to the workplace after maternity leave. Last year, a group of organisations including the Women’s Engineering Society and Women in Manufacturing surveyed 5000 women with a STEM qualification. The survey found that of the 60% who found barriers to returning to work after maternity leave, 67% of those would return to a STEM career if they could, and 48% said that training would help them to do so.

A system of one-to-one support could also significantly help women returning to the field. Giving women a mentor, a trusted advisor, female or male, to have honest and open conversations around work and what is happening, can be invaluable. After all, it is challenging for a woman to network effectively in a male-dominated environment as it is, offering support to help them reconnect with networks can help bridge this gap.

Everyone has a part to play

While tackling the issues surrounding flexible working for engineer mothers would go some way to help pave the road to gender equality at the higher end of the career ladder, this alone is surely not going to lift that 6% to a more reasonable figure. What about attracting more female talent in the first place?

It could be argued that this needs to start at school in order to get more children interested in STEM subjects and to give better career advice to them around engineering roles. Schoolgirls in particularly aren’t familiar with engineering and are seriously lacking in female role models. So what more could be done outside of school?

Well, the responsibility should be shared by everyone. The government in particular could be doing more in terms of working with teachers to give out non-stereotyping careers advice around engineering – particularly what it is and why it’s important. Engineering is suffering from an image problem so it’s vital that we reach out to young girls early on and put these choices in front of them. The media can help with this too.

Does the future look equal?

In an ideal world, the engineering sector would unite and take real action. While industry reports are useful insights, we need to take the next step and spend money in the right places, get the relevant groups together and do something that will be beneficial in the long-term. Essentially, we need to aim to get to a point where it seems normal for women to be engineers. The good news is we are getting there – it’s just a matter of time.

Susan Dale is an Engineering L&D Consultant, Thales Learning and Development, Crawley, Sussex, UK. 

Recent Issues