Comment: Keeping women in engineering

Michelle Roaf, Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS) Product Manager at Air Products UK and Ireland, discusses the challenges of female retention in engineering. 

Adobe Stock

Engineering is a life-affirming profession.  Allow me to explain.  We are facing unprecedented climate challenges that could up-end life as we know it and that can sometimes leave us feeling like spectators in the grand scheme of things.  Luckily for me, my engineering role lets me get in the driver’s seat and make a change.


I’m a product manager for carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) technology, on the frontline of tackling climate change and delivering on the UK’s promise of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.  We’re pioneering CCUS technologies, not only for blue hydrogen production, but also for reducing emissions from hard to decarbonise industries, such as cement and lime production which release large amounts of carbon dioxide annually.  These technologies enable the capture, transport and storage of these emissions underground so that the atmospheric air remains cleaner.  It lets me do my bit in the battle for better outcomes for society and our planet – and means I can proudly tell my children that I am part of a global team dedicated to building a cleaner, greener future for their generation and beyond.

Work that makes an impact

But does this sense of purpose really matter?  Research by the Columbia Business School earlier this year found that it does – especially to women.  According to the research, women are much more likely to do jobs with a “greater prosocial impact” and let’s be honest, few careers match engineering when it comes to providing strength of purpose, challenge, reward and fulfilment.  So, getting women into engineering should be easy right? Unfortunately, no, it still remains a challenge. A recent study in the journal Engineering Today revealed that between 2010 and 2021 there was a six-percentage point increase in the proportion of women in the engineering workforce, from 10.5% to 16.5%.  While encouraging, it’s not good enough – so what are we missing?

Start early and sustain the passion

We need to polish the image of engineering to attract top female talent to the field and amplify the voices of those who are proud of the work we do on a day-to-day basis.  At Air Products, we ensure that we start our engagement with children at primary levels to help demystify engineering and STEM subjects, making them less intimidating and more accessible for both boys and girls.

The key to sustaining the passion for students lies in consistent engagement as they progress with their education, peppering it with hands-on learning, linking what they hear in the classroom to real world issues, knowledge sharing by mentors and role models and competitions to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills essential for STEM careers.  What we’ve learnt is that with students and learners, a multifaceted approach is crucial, and the goal should be to nurture a mindset where challenges are viewed as opportunities rather than obstacles, where solving them is exciting, requires work and deep thinking, but is also rewarding.

Make them feel valued

The Royal Academy of Engineering and the Women’s Engineering Society found that a majority of female engineers – 57 per cent – quit the profession before they reached the age of 45 – compared to only 17 per cent of men.  If organisations really want to stem this drain and retain their women employees, they must make concerted and visible efforts to recognise and demonstrate how women enhance the workplace in their own right.  In addition, there needs to be acknowledgement that women bring different perspectives and approaches to problem-solving.  Employers should consider how to make typically lesser-represented roles more attractive and amenable to women.  

With time and effort, as female representation becomes more visible at higher levels, and across a wider range of engineering roles, young female engineers will get an increasingly clear line of sight and inspiration for their own career destinations and the paths to get there. 

Visible parity across all aspects of work, opportunities to learn and grow, a watchful eye on employee well-being, and being able to have sensible discussions around flexible working are all hallmarks of a healthy thriving workplace, which is beneficial to everyone regardless of gender.

Get the basics right

From my perspective, accommodating their needs and making women in engineering feel seen, heard and valued is crucial to better retention in our sector.  There’s a whole plethora of changes that should be put in place to drive female recruitment and retention, but getting the basics right would put us firmly on the road to keeping women in the sector – and from that, there is not only individual benefit, but societal benefit too.  

Michelle Roaf is Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS) Product Manager at Air Products UK and Ireland