We need to do a better job of communicating how broad a church engineering is and the powerful impact it can have on the world, says Victoria Howells, Director Of Engineering Operations & Strategy (UK) at Thales
The modern workforce is changing, but the pace of change continues to be excruciatingly slow. While businesses today are increasingly aware of the value a diverse range of views and life experiences brings to their organisation, sometimes the perceptions of the industry can be too great a challenge for one individual or company to change. It needs to be a joint effort, industry wide, pulling in the same direction to encourage those who may not have thought about a career in a particular field to show why it could be right for them.
If I asked you to call to mind male dominated industries, I’d be willing to bet engineering would be near the top and you would be right. There is simply no getting away from the current reality that women being heavily outnumbered in our industry. However, on this year’s International Women’s Day, I want to highlight how it is the ideal sector for anyone looking to shape our global future and why we need to change perceptions of the industry in order to appeal to a wider demographic.
An image problem
The reasons women remain massively underrepresented in engineering are complex, but in general the perception of what an engineer is, is often the biggest barrier at a STEM level. At a point in life where a child’s aspirations are being shaped the dated perception persists that it is an industry of men in high-vi’s vests making calculations. You only have to type “engineer” into a Google image search to see how pervasive that imagery remains; and whilst there are engineers doing that type of work, engineering is so much more than that.
As an industry we need to do a better job of communicating just how broad a church engineering is and the powerful impact it can have on the world. From the vehicles we drive, to the buildings we live in or the devices we rely on in our digital-first world, nearly every human-made object has been influenced by an engineer.
As an engineer you can choose to have an impact on pressing immediate and important challenges such as critical infrastructure projects and national defence, tackle globally crucial challenges such as climate change or grab the horizon and work on the bleeding edge of any technology. The opportunities are limitless.
The long game
Many women I know want to tackle large scale challenges and imbalances that they see in the world. They want the future to be different to what it is now and it is vital that the industry reaches out to women of all ages to let them know that engineering is a place to take that control and make those changes by designing and delivering solutions.
But whilst convincing women to join the industry now is important, we’ll only truly close the gender gap by being persistent, continuing with the many grassroots STEM initiatives and understanding that the impact of these interventions are developing the pipeline for a more diverse workforce that may not be realised for 10-15 years. We must redouble our efforts reshaping the perception of engineering as a career not just for children but their parents, carers and teachers – those who will influence their career choices.
An opportunity to shape tomorrow
So, as we celebrate all that makes us who we are as women today, the engineering sector has the opportunity to lead the way in visibly and actively diversifying itself, making space for all the voices to be heard that can and should be shaping the future.
For me, the most empowering and inspiring aspect of engineering has always been that ultimately the best idea, innovation or technology wins. If your idea is good enough, it will succeed in enacting the change you want it to deliver.
William Gibson wrote “the future is already here, it’s just very unevenly distributed” and when I look at the world today, I can read many layers of meanings into that statement. For me, engineering is the way in which I engage with the future, my opportunity to shape what tomorrow looks like.
Victoria Howells, Director Of Engineering Operations & Strategy (UK) at Thales