Women don’t make good engineers. They make great engineers.

female engineer

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 9% according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s 2016 annual Skills & Demand in Industry report), it isn’t difficult to see why there is so much debate around the subject. The UK’s is the lowest proportion in all of Europe, and has been for several years.

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

The engineering sector is currently failing to draw on the whole talent pool.

There have already been some fairly significant interventions since the review. In 2014, 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. Hancock said the following when he spoke at the launch:

“As highlighted in the Perkins Review, the engineering sector is currently failing to draw on the whole talent pool. By supporting employers to develop the workforce of the future and bring more women into the engineering, we’re empowering the industry to unlock its potential.”

Minister for Women Nicky Morgan also commented:

“We need to move away from the perception that engineering is a ‘man’s world.’ Without women pursuing careers in engineering, UK companies are missing out on a vast pool of talent.”

Another campaign, launched more recently on 29th September 2014, 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.

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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? When we interviewed Dawn Bonfield, Chief Executive of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), she advised us that the two options are most certainly not mutually exclusive. In fact, they both answer the same problem.

“The industry needs more people in order to close the skills gap, and by encouraging more women into engineering you have a much wider talent pool to choose from,” she says. “You also create a much more culturally open industry, which, in turn, makes it more balanced, a better place to work, an environment where health and well-being is improved, and all of this ultimately impacts the bottom line in a positive way.”

Dawn Ohlson, UK Director of Systems at Thales and a chartered engineer, believes that, regardless of whether you’re talking about gender or not, diversity is vital when it comes to productivity and quality of output.

“It’s so important in engineering to understand the context and environment in which your system or product will be used,” she says. “Diversity is healthy because you get a balance of perspective. If you have people who are carbon copies of each other you all see the same risks and opportunities.”

Bonfield certainly agrees with that sentiment, and points out that people should also tread carefully when referring to what the ‘best talent’ in engineering is, as the label is fairly subjective.

“I never felt held back in my career until I returned from maternity leave.”

“The ‘best talent’ is in the eye of the interviewer, which at the moment is usually a middle-aged man,” she says. “They are saying ‘the best talent looks like me,’ so when a woman comes along who naturally doesn’t reflect them, they’re seen as not right for the job.

“Then you fall into the trap of doing the same thing over and over again because you’re always looking for the same type of person. 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?

Female engineers often face discrimination when returning from maternity leaveClearly 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. According to Bonfield, who had a successful career as a chartered minerals engineer before joining WES, the issue can be largely attributed to one word – motherhood.

“I never felt held back in my career until I returned from maternity leave,” she says. “The company I was with invested a great deal of time and effort into my development, only to effectively let me go because I didn’t fit the mould once I had a family. Now organisations are going out of their way to find experienced engineers, but how many have they let go because of inflexibility around the ones who decided to become mothers?”

Ohlson, who has twice returned from maternity leave herself, explains the difficulty in coming back to work after such a long break.

“Taking six months out is huge, and it probably took me about a year each time to really get my confidence back,” she says. “The engineering community could do much more to help women coming back after having children.”

What more could be done?

When it comes to tackling the issue of maternity leave as a career block for female engineers, Bonfield believes the answer lies in shifting attitudes from seeing it as a problem, to viewing it as an opportunity.

“Employers don’t want to take on people who they think will leave to have children, and I can understand why,” she says. “But we’ve got to help organisations understand that it’s not all negative. A woman returning from maternity leave could bring potential opportunities – increased loyalty, for example, or better time management.

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“With the right training and support, women returning from maternity leave could become key employees. 68% of women would like to come back to STEM after maternity leave, and 48% said that the right training would provide a good way for them to do so. They could also look at flexible working for maternity leave, or childcare facilities. It’s all about a change in culture.”

According to Ohlson, a system of one-to-one support could significantly help women returning to the field.

“Mentoring would be a great help,” she says. “Not necessarily always women mentoring women, but just having a trusted advisor who can help you catch up on what has been happening – someone you can have open discussions with in a work context.

“It is challenging for a woman to network effectively in a male-dominated environment as it is, but even more so when you’ve been away for that long. A mentor could support you in terms of updating you on, and reconnecting you with, your networks.”

Everyone has a part to play

While tackling the issues surrounding flexible working for female engineers with children 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 9% to a more reasonable figure. What about attracting more female talent in the first place?

“It has to start at school,” says Ohlson. “That isn’t to say industry hasn’t got a part to play, but more needs to be done to get children to take subjects like maths and physics more seriously, and to give better career advice around engineering.

“Young girls are not easily put off, as long as we actually put these choices in front of them.”

“Schoolgirls are seriously lacking in role models, too. They don’t really know what engineering is. I knew what it was because my father was an engineer, but young people generally, not just girls, think only of mechanical engineering and people getting grubby in overalls. If people want to do that then great, but engineering is a hugely diverse field. My master’s degree involved working in a hospital maternity unit with electro-encephalograms – machines which monitor the brain activity of premature babies. That type of thing would really appeal to a lot of young girls.”

Clearly, then, young women at school age could benefit from a strong role model when it comes to STEM careers, particularly those girls who do not have a family member already in the field. But what more could be done outside of school? Bonfield believes the responsibility should be shared by everyone.

“Government could do much more in terms of working with teachers and giving out non-stereotyping careers advice, and promoting gender equality in schools,” she says. “We also need campaigns around what engineering is and why it is important, because it suffers from an image problem. It’s about reaching out to the more gender stereotype ‘girly’ girls and saying ‘we know you like girly stuff, but that’s what we want in engineering.’ Young girls are not easily put off, as long as we actually put these choices in front of them.”

“The media has a part to play too,” says Ohlson. “There was a huge peak in the popularity of physics when Brian Cox became prominent in the public eye, for example.”

Does the future look equal?

equality“My worry is that things will carry on being piecemeal and short term,” says Bonfield. “In an ideal world we would all get together as an industry and take real action, rather than just reinventing the wheel and bringing out more reports. There is nothing new in the reports – we have the information, we just need to spend money in the right places, get all the relevant groups together and do something much more concerted and long-term.

“I ultimately want to get to a point where it seems normal for women to be engineers.”

That time may not be as far away as people fear. Ohlson feels fairly confident that attitudes are moving in the right direction already.

 “When I tell people I’m an engineer, now, they don’t raise their eyebrows like they did 10 years ago,” she says. “I’d like to think we’re close to reaching the point at which it’s no longer seen as out of the ordinary.”

Enhance Magazine

This article was originally featured in Issue 3 of Enhance Magazine

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