Engineering is still a man’s world. It’s a sad fact that the number of women in engineering is still so dismally low at around nine per cent. This means the industry is missing out on a significant talent pool and all the opportunities that brings.
We rely on engineers for many essential facilities, 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 clearly a huge untapped market out there in bright women that probably don’t even know what career opportunities are out there for them if they become professional engineers.
There are so many advantages to having more of a 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.
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 seen as uncool), it doesn’t pay as well as some other careers you could choose 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. The Guardian conducted a survey of Top ten rewarding jobs last year and Engineering came in first with the top happiness score. I can attest to this because I love my job.
I work in an engineering consultancy, managing a team of brilliant engineers. 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 every day but I go home to my husband and two kids and overall have a work-life balance that makes me happy.
How do we get more young women to consider engineering?
After speaking to several industry colleagues and experts, my deduction is that we need a stronger message from the engineering community on what the profession is really about.
This message needs to be communicated to kids at primary and secondary school level, their parents, teachers and career’s advisors. STEM initiatives and events like “Big Bang” are fantastic but we need to widen the message to reach many more people and tackle the misconceptions.
Another common point is that the few girls who get the right qualifications don’t make it to becoming professional engineers. Issues like a lack of role models, lack of support, lack of confidence and discrimination, all contribute to pushing women out of engineering careers.
Gender imbalance in senior positions is a common problems for many industries, 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.
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 the country. The gender imbalance has got to change if we want British engineering firms to be the best in the world in future. We need to do something about it and we need to do it now.
About the author
Alexandra Knight is the Technology Management group leader at Frazer Nash Consultancy.