Engineering is still a man's world. This has got to change. It's a sad fact that the number of women in engineering in the UK is still so dismally low at about 12%. This means the industry is missing out on a significant talent pool and all the opportunities that brings. We rely on engineers for basically everything we need in our lives, so just imagine the possibilities if we had a larger, stronger workforce helping invent, develop and create tomorrow's solutions.
We need more qualified engineers full stop. That means both men and women. However, there is a huge untapped talent pool of bright girls that probably don't even know what career opportunities are out there for them if they become professional engineers.
Why does it matter?
There are so many advantages to having a better balance of men and women in any workplace. There’s plenty of research showing it improves decision-making, growth and culture in business.
For me the biggest advantage is that diversity supports innovation. With the stereotypical engineering company having 'male, pale and stale' syndrome, it doesn't allow the contrast of varied minds, background and experience that breaking the boundaries of conventional solutions requires.
What are the barriers?
There are many issues that lead to the lack of girls going into engineering. The usual suspects are: being mistaken for a physical job where you have to get your hands dirty every day; not being considered a high-standing profession like being a doctor or lawyer; relying on being good at maths and physics which can be considered too hard and nerdy; doesn't pay well; and is just simply a man's world dominated by men doing manly stuff that excludes and intimidates women.
There are some clear misconceptions in that list that need addressing through helping the public appreciate what professional engineering is really about, but there are also some elements of truth. You do need an aptitude for science and maths, (however this shouldn’t be uncool), it doesn't pay as well as some other careers you could chose with similar qualifications, and it doesn’t have the same prestige as careers like law or medicine (which isn’t an issue in many other countries).
However, there are many positive things that should encourage girls to consider engineering. Engineering jobs often come out top on "best career" surveys, especially for career satisfaction! I can attest to this. I love my job. I've worked in engineering organisations as an engineering consultant in Industry for over 15 years. I currently work at Amey Strategic Consulting as a Technical Director. I'm part of a team of brilliant people that includes engineers, scientists, mathematicians, software developers, analysts, project managers and more. Basically, we use our combined skills to solve problems and find opportunities to make better places to live, work and travel.
I love being innovative, creative, solving real world problems, helping people, delivering real outcomes, working together with others, applying what I've learnt whilst thinking outside the box. I work hard but I’m also a wife and mother, and Amey supports me to have a good work-life balance which is ultimately the thing that makes me happy.
So how do we get more girls to consider engineering? Well, I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this and the most common point is that we need a stronger message from the engineering community on what engineering is really about, and this needs to be targeted at kids at Primary school as well as Secondary school, including their parents, teachers and career’s advisers.
Organisations like WES, IET, STEMettes and RAEng are doing fantastic work to smash stereotypes. STEM initiatives like LottieTour and events like Big Bang are also brilliant. However, the number of women going into engineering is not improving enough. We need to widen the message to reach many more people and tackle the misconceptions.
Retention is also a problem. Issues like a lack of role models, lack of support, lack of confidence and discrimination all contribute to pushing women out of engineering careers. These are common problems for many industries that mean a gender imbalance in senior positions and I think it will still be a long time before we see equality in business in general. However, drives towards pay transparency and culture improvements, such as flexible working and mentoring, will help encourage more trail-blazing women to make it to the top which in turn should create more role models and improve the imbalance in future.
What can you do?
Women are generally not great at shouting about their success and we need more female engineers to stand up and tell us their story. We need more female engineering role models showing it’s possible to be a world-class technical specialist or a senior leader in an engineering firm paving the way in business.
We need examples of women in engineering that are successful whilst still being feminine, to prove you don’t have to become more masculine to make it in what’s considered a man’s world. We need to address the misconceptions about engineering and send that message loud and clear to everyone.
The time is now. What will you do to make a difference?
Alexandra Knight CEng FIMechE MIAM BEng MSc