Driving cultural change for female engineers

helenHelen Wollaston – CEO, WISE

Engineering’s gender gap is beginning to close, but we still need to do more to attract women to a career in engineering and ensure they remain in the profession, writes Helen Wollaston.

The good news is that more women than ever before are choosing to work in engineering. There were 12,000 more women working as professional engineers in the UK in 2015 compared to the year before. We hope when Labour Force Survey data from 2016 is published in August to see a further increase. Slowly but surely, the message is getting out to girls and their families about the opportunities that engineering can offer.

Opportunities are in terms of pay and prospects, which are better than in many more traditionally female sectors, as well as opportunities for a varied, interesting and meaningful career.

The bad news is that we are starting from a very low base and women still make up less than 10 per cent of the UK’s professional engineering workforce. Engineering is a more popular choice for women in other parts of the world such as Mexico, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, proving that barriers are cultural rather than genetic. WISE research, commissioned by Network Rail, found that psychological barriers get in the way of girls choosing engineering.

There is a conflict between how teenage girls identify themselves and what they perceive to be the identity of ‘an engineer’. Engineering outreach programmes based on hands-on activity are not enough to convince most girls to choose engineering — they may enjoy the activity but they don’t see themselves as an engineer.

The WISE People Like Me campaign gets girls to select adjectives to describe themselves, matches these to two or three ‘types of scientist’ and shows them roles in engineering for people with a similar personality type. Don’t re-invent the wheel – use tried-and-tested techniques, based on robust evidence about what works with girls.

A similar approach can be used in recruitment campaigns to attract more female applicants to engineering roles. If you include adjectives to describe the type of person you are looking for, women are more likely to be interested. It also helps if you describe the bigger picture — what the organisation or project does and how this supports a wider social or environmental purpose.

This will attract interest from women (and men) who want to make a difference to the world they live in. Network Rail used our research to refresh the marketing of its graduate recruitment programme. It was delighted with the volume and quality of applicants, as well as the diversity. Simple steps make a big difference.

Recruitment isn’t the only challenge, however. We also need to get better at keeping women in
the profession, which means giving them the same encouragement and opportunities as their male colleagues to rise to the top. This doesn’t mean positive discrimination. Most of us prefer to get jobs on merit, not simply because of our gender. There isn’t a magic bullet that will fix things in one go. We are talking about cultural change, which requires concerted and consistent action on a number of fronts, led from the top.

Leaders of 49 companies have signed up to the Ten Steps, a framework to improve women’s representation at senior levels in science, technology and engineering. We share good practice so that they can learn from each other and be inspired to do more. Like any cultural change, it will take time to reap the business benefits.

There is a growing body of evidence to support a business case for change. Global research by McKinsey found companies with three or more women in the leadership team are 15 per cent more likely to have financial returns above average for their sector. Engineering firms that learn how to hire and keep women at all levels of the business will stay ahead of the competition in other respects.

If you think that is you or your firm, why not put yourself forward for a WISE Award (closing date 8 July). The awards are designed to flush out new role models and champions who will help us get a positive message about women and engineering out to girls, women, their families, teachers and employers in communities up and down the land. Our vision is that it is as natural for a girl to show interest in engineering as it is for her brother. Work with WISE to make that dream come true.

Helen Wollaston is chief executive of WISE