Women engineers can reap future rewards

Women engineers have a key role in helping to bridge the UK’s burgeoning skills gap 

Over the years, the UK has been hailed as the ‘workshop of the world’ and a world leader in engineering and innovation. But despite this history of success, today it has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe. According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, women still only make up around just 8 per cent of engineers.

This is at a time when the industry is facing a critical skills shortage. Research by Engineering UK has found an additional 1.8 million engineers are needed by 2025. At the moment, there is a 20,000-a-year shortfall in qualified engineers. To bridge this skills gap, the UK is currently reliant on employees from abroad. However, potential restrictions on the free movement of labour in the wake of Brexit could make the skills shortage even worse.

“One way to improve the pipeline would be to persuade more women and minority groups that engineering could be a great career choice for them,” said Naomi Climer, a past president of the IET. “There are so many big and global, as well as small and local, challenges for engineers to crack that we need all the talent we can get. This is not about doing the right or fair thing for women – it’s a compelling economic and societal issue to train as many talented engineers as we can.”

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, enabling women to meet their full potential in work could add as much as £22tn to annual GDP in 2025. Diversity is crucial to employers with companies 15 per cent more likely to perform better if they are gender diverse. It is also important to innovation. In a global survey, 85 per cent of corporate diversity and talent leaders agreed that “a diverse and inclusive workforce is crucial to encouraging different perspectives

and ideas that drive innovation”.

According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, women still make up around just 8 per cent of engineers

So why aren’t more women being recruited in engineering roles? Lucy Collins is a Women Into Science and Engineering (WISE) board member with a degree in civil and structural engineering. She currently works for the Ministry of Defence as a submarine designer. Collins believes the main barrier for women getting into engineering is an unconscious gender bias, in both society and the workplace.

“The effects of this unfortunately pervade the engineering and STEM environment,” she said. “People may, and will, argue that sexism no longer exists and improvements such as mandatory diversity and inclusion training prove this is true. However, this simply isn’t the case. Conscious gender bias may be significantly improved from where we were 30 years ago but ingrained behaviour is more difficult to overcome and certainly does still exist.”

Naming ceremonies

To back up her point, Collins said that Yale University carried out a study where a job application for a student wanting to become a lab manager was produced, with half the study participants receiving it with a male name attached and half with a female name. The ‘female’ applicants rated significantly lower than the ‘male’ equivalents on competence and hireability, and were also given a lower starting salary. Interestingly, both male and female scientists were equally likely to commit the gender bias.

“From a female perspective, women are missing out on jobs that they can be happy and successful in,” said Collins. “Women tend towards careers that help people and contribute to society, which is why there is such a high percentage of female talent in the medical profession. There is also high competition for limited positions. In my opinion, no other profession contributes more to society than engineering does – why should women miss out?”

The WISE campaign works with companies to support them in implementing these changes that encourage women into engineering roles through the WISE Ten Steps. Some examples that have seen success include: starting a mentor and role-model programme; describing the person specification in job descriptions; offering flexible working arrangements and re-training for those returning from parental leave; and showcasing female talent through events such as the WISE awards.

Julie Holyland, learning and talent development lead at Siemens, said: “We need to reach a ‘tipping point’ in the number of women within engineering – especially at more senior levels. I hear much debate and some fervently held views about the relative merit of focusing specifically on developing female talent. Certainly, not everyone believes it’s the way to go, and I’d be the first to say it’s never the only way to go. However, all our experience and research points to the fact that getting groups of talented women together – future leaders of their organisation – can be of profound benefit both to the individuals and the business.”

Lower from the start

While other professions that are extremely male-dominated at the senior levels have a higher initial entrant population of women, the numbers of women tend to be lower right from the start in engineering.  According to The Engineer’s latest Salary Survey, just 0.4 per cent of total respondents were women working at director level or above, while male engineers working at this level accounted for almost 10 per cent of the entire sample group.

To tackle this, Siemens has a Women Into Leadership scheme that consists of both group and one-to-one coaching, targeted and tailored events, as well as mentoring from senior individuals in the business across a six-month period. “We have such an incredible, diverse talent pool and we want to be the company where women have the same opportunities to rise to the top and become leaders as men,” said Siemens chief financial officer Maria Ferraro, executive sponsor of the initiative. Other groups, such as Airbus, are also working to increase the number of applications from women. At the end of 2016, 17 per cent of Airbus’s workforce was women; and women held about 11 per cent of senior manager and executive positions. This year, the company’s objective is to have 30 per cent of its recruits made up of women.

“The main barriers to progression are often due to individuals’ own belief in their ability,” said Jacqueline Castle, head of A350 XWB and A380 landing gear at Airbus. “I have sometimes seen a lack of confidence in women, meaning they do not push themselves forward for promotion. I have not seen any barriers within my company or the aerospace industry in general for the progression of female engineers. Capable engineers who are reliable and deliver to their commitments will progress.”

While there’s no silver bullet to increasing the number of women in engineering, what’s clear is that more needs to be done to engage female engineers. However, for those who do decide to take the leap into such a male-dominated industry, the rewards could be huge.