News analysis: Engineering for equality

Proactive approaches to STEM equality aim to redress imbalances in education and the workplace

(L-R) Anna Sannö and Ulrika Sultan during one of Volvo CE's workshops

Whilst there is no shortage of conversations about diversity taking place across engineering, industry can make no secret of the gender imbalance still recognised across its sectors. In March 2021, The Engineer’s annual salary survey revealed some sobering figures: female engineers accounted for just 6.3 per cent of respondents, and were still earning lower average salaries than their male associates.

Many companies are stepping up efforts in diversity and inclusion, working toward the ambition of achieving an equal workplace — but it’s clear that the profession is not getting there fast enough, so what’s the hold up?

There are many factors at play, but research shows a societal issue rooted in a lack of education and awareness around engineering as a career path for girls at a young age. Specifically, this occurs around the age of ten, according to a study from researcher Ulrika Sultan at Sweden’s Linköping University.

This served as inspiration for Volvo Construction Equipment (Volvo CE)’s ’Vera’ initiative — a workshop series named after Sweden’s first female engineer Vera Sandberg. The workshops were established in 2019 across 13 Swedish universities, but Sultan’s findings inspired Volvo CE and partner Mälardalen University to conduct the sessions for girls of a younger age.

"Engineering as a profession is still ‘invisible’ for many girls. It’s an important message to make them feel included"

Anna Sannö, research strategy manager at Volvo CE and one of the initiative’s co-managers, said that despite progress, engineering as a profession is still ‘invisible’ for many girls. “I think it’s an important message just to make sure that they feel included from the beginning,” she said.

“You have to communicate to the girls in a way that actually promotes their interest in the subject … to encourage in a positive way that this is a career you can choose, and to open that door a little longer so that everyone can choose by themselves — not [according to] societal pressures and prejudice.”

Merle Hall, CEO of Bristol-based product design company Kinneir Dufort, agrees that the way we communicate both in educational and industrial settings is crucial to reversing what is clearly a deeply entrenched, systemic issue.

The agency — of which 50 per cent of the leadership team is female — has launched XXEquals, an initiative aiming to fulfil a need for improved gender balance in the industrial design industry. Three quarters of the experts on KD’s XXEquals team are women, working alongside men to deliver an ‘empathetic, intuitive approach’ to product design with the needs of women considered — something that, Hall pointed out, is often neglected.

“There’s a huge amount of products that need to be multifunctional across different genders, and because of the way that design teams are structured, there often isn’t the impetus to ensure that testing properly occurs throughout the process,” Hall said. 

“This isn’t hypothesis, there are reams of examples where this has happened, and I realise that we can train people in the industry, we can talk about confidence, we can work with educational bodies — but actually, only by then setting up the commercial arm that is XXEquals can we show that it’s good for business as well.”

Hall hopes this will inspire other companies within industry to assess the diversity of their workforces, but more needs to be done alongside these initiatives for us to see real progress, including in schools and universities where the percentage of women and girls studying STEM subjects is still low. Recent UCAS data provided by HESA shows that 81 per cent of those studying engineering and technology degrees were male, while women made up just 16 per cent of engineering and technology graduates in 2018/19.

When considering steps that could be taken, Hall gave the example of Bristol University which she explained had been looking at adjusting qualifying criteria for its engineering course and removing physics as a prerequisite due to the subject’s low level of female students.

Better representation is needed at every stage including within teaching staff at universities, Hall added, as well as within the recruitment process for companies taking on graduates in particular. “I’d really encourage people to think about how they can make these posts more attractive, get women in your team involved in the recruitment process … and think about how you’re going to invest in people.”

“Our overarching objective is to make XXEquals obsolete, that we don’t need a female focused arm because ultimately every business is considering that … We’re just trying to create some actionable change rather than sitting around and talking about it. Hopefully we can encourage others to open up a conversation.