Challenging the Future of Engineering
Written by Anna Lindblad, Technical Product Manager
Today is International Women’s Day! A great opportunity to discuss current challenges in gender diversity. Being a woman and also being fortunate in holding two engineering degrees (Bachelor and Postgraduate) , I asked if I could write a blog post regarding the topical debate of encouraging more women into engineering roles. I recently read a few very interesting articles from various sources. The general consensus was “less women are pursuing careers in engineering”.
A recent article in BBC from January 2018 (1) asks the question “why are there so few females’ engineers” and concludes that the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe (less then 10%). The Washington Post(2) also published an article in 2018 which drew interesting focuses on the gender split within this field.
Globally, 74% of STEM ( Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics ) employees are male which is a significantly different number to the 10% of female engineers in the UK. Research by The University of Missouri is quoted in the article however, it mentions a large variation between different fields of science and engineering with disciplines such as computer science and physics being two of the most heavily male dominated. The study also points out national differences with data showing an interesting correlation- wealthier countries with more gender equality see less women within science or engineering. The reason for this has not been definitively concluded but researchers have outlined several potential contributing factors. One of them being that jobs are more stable in wealthier economies and therefore the salary differences between different professions matters less. This means that science related studies which traditionally have led to increased job security are no longer selected solely for that reason.
The data presented in the BBC article however surprised me, I am aware that there are more male engineers then female but 10% sounds surprisingly low given that at Warwick University our cohort of female students was considerably higher than 10% . Another interesting aspect of this research is that the research also identified that less women with engineering degrees actually choose to go into a career within engineering when compared to men. With women making up 20% of engineering graduates, only 11% choose to work as engineers. This highlights another potential challenge for the sector which is the ability to attract and retain engineering graduates.
Harvard Business review (3) published an article on this topic in 2018, focusing on female retention within engineering roles which was highlighted as a persistent problem. One of the main reasons that was proposed was the stress associated with being female in a male dominated environment.
This raises a very relevant question: Are initiatives to encourage women to pursue a degree within engineering or science undermined by the fact that employers can not attract or retain females within this field? And most importantly, if women are leaving engineering jobs due to stress of a male dominated environment, why are businesses not doing more to create an improved and more inclusive corporate culture?
When I graduated from my masters in 2016 I did not apply for a traditional engineering role (I am part of that 9% cited earlier) Ironically it was not until last year that I transferred into a role that had a more technical focus. I see this pattern a lot amongst my previous classmates from both my undergraduate and my master’s degree. The men are more likely to go for roles within more traditionally male industries while women will go for a less technically heavy industry where soft skills are more valued.
I of course had all the opportunity in the world to seek a pure engineering role once I graduated but for me it was a choice to pursue a more business management focused career. Or was it a choice? was the choice already made for me because of the perception of society and the bracket which I would fit best into? HBR also mentions the segregation of key skills within engineering related careers. One being the technical, problem solving skills and the other being a “softer” skill set such as communication, relationship building and teamwork. These two skillsets are heavily linked to gender and widely promoted as being so!
Before we can walk we are segregated and treated differently depending on our gender and the social factors and dynamics that underpin this segregation impacts our personalities and perspectives. This could be one of the reasons as to why some women (the 9% that do not choose to work within engineering) see themselves more fit for a job focusing on soft skills such as management and communication.
As businesses become more cross functional and dynamic, I hope we might see a change in the traditional way we perceive and view skill sets. There is also an increasing trend in degree streams offering a combination of technical and soft skills, creating more well-rounded graduates with a broader level of expertise but who are less prone to be “experts” within a certain field.
It is evident that the disproportion of females and males within engineering is caused by more complex reasons then “fewer women than men study in engineering”. It is a result of culture and stereotypes inherent in our way of viewing ourselves and others.
I am proud to work for an organisation like STERIS where diversity is seen as a key for success and productivity. I am a firm believer that businesses need to play a part in developing an inclusive and supportive organisational culture.
- BBC, BBC Science and Environment, Why are there so few female engineers, [Online], 2018, 08032019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-42655179
- THE WASHINGTON POST, Fewer women want to be scientist in wealthy, equal countries, [Online], 2018, 08/03/2019, https://hbr.org/2018/11/the-subtle-stressors-making-women-want-to-leave-engineering
- HBR, The subtle stressors making women want to leave engineering, [Online], 2018, 07032019, https://hbr.org/2018/11/the-subtle-stressors-making-women-want-to-leave-engineering