#INWED18: tackling stigma through engineering change

Paula Ruiz, Proposals Engineer, Alpheus Environmental, talks about tackling stigma through engineering change

This Saturday, 23rd June, marks International Women in Engineering Day (INWED18). Its aim is to celebrate women in engineering and encourage more girls and young women to consider engineering as a career.

As a proposals engineer with Alpheus Environmental, water and wastewater Management Company, part of the Anglian Water Group, it is great to see such events taking place, which are critical to tackling the stigma surrounding women and engineering.

For 2018, the aim of the Day is to aim higher, with the theme of #RaisingTheBar, addressing the prejudices which mean that even in the 21st Century engineering is still thought of as a job for a man. Not enough female role models and gender stereotyping are well documented as reasons why girls don’t choose engineering, as are misconceptions about the job itself, which isn’t always about getting your hands dirty.

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Yet there are considerable opportunities for engineers, in what is an incredibly interesting and diverse profession. These range from aerospace to water, with a diverse range of roles. From designing an affordable solution for clean drinking water, to the design of new buildings and the use of renewable energy technology to lessen environmental impacts.

My own background is in chemical engineering and I specialise in the challenging field of wastewater and waste treatment. No two days are ever the same and it is the problem solving element of this that I really enjoy.

As readers will be aware, there has been a well-recognised skills gap in engineering for some time now.  The Engineering UK’s State of Engineering report for 2018, for example, anticipates a predicted annual shortfall of between 37,000 and 59,000 in meeting an annual demand for 124,000 core engineering roles.

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The UK, which once led the world in engineering, is now facing considerable skills shortages when it comes to delivering the schools, hospitals and green energy projects of the future.

In part, this is due to the fact that that young women do not enter engineering roles at anything like the same rate as young men. Indeed, research undertaken in 2017 pointed to that fact that only 11 per cent of the engineering workforce is female.

Such a situation is simply not sustainable and to address this mismatch we need to tap into every potential talent pool. If women started to come into engineering at the same rates as men, the skills gap would close significantly. Greater diversity in the workplace also improves the performance of companies, with it estimated that companies are 15 per cent more likely to perform better if they are gender diverse.

The solution is fundamental – we need more women to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, both at school and university. Yet only around 20 per cent of A Level physics students are girls and this has not changed in 25 years. We must also ensure that young women are made aware of the full range of employment opportunities on offer through qualifications in engineering, ensuring that these sectors are seen as attractive to enter. That is why there is considerable merit in supporting employers’ initiatives with schools, helping girls to get a perspective on engineering careers.

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Indeed, this forthcoming week I will be attending a number of Women in Engineering events, organised by Anglian Water, encouraging girls from local primary secondary schools into the profession.

If there are female engineers who can act as role models, then the likelihood is that the women will have positive attitudes towards exploring STEM careers. I was also incredibly lucky in having parents who fully supported what I was doing in entering a career in engineering.

There is an incredibly positive story to tell about engineering, not just benefiting the young person concerned, but the economy as a whole. And the role of all those women in the profession should be celebrated and encouraged.