Hundreds of businesses sign pledge to change engineering image problem

Over 100 organisations, including the BBC, National Grid, Facebook and Rolls-Royce, have signed up to a pledge to help change the online image search results for the word ‘engineer’, as an AI programme scours the internet and decides that a typical engineer looks like a white man wearing a hard hat.

female software engineer
© This is Engineering

Led by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the pledge, which has been signed by The Engineer, aims to address the misrepresentation of engineers and engineering online and in popular culture. It will do this by actively increasing the public visibility of more representative images of engineers and engineering.

The pledge has been launched on This is Engineering Day – a national awareness day held during  Tomorrow’s Engineers Week to celebrate the unsung contribution that engineers make to our lives.

To test the representation of the profession online, an AI machine learning model, otherwise known as a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN), analysed over 1,100 images of engineers sourced online, and generated images based on this given dataset. The images generated by the GAN showed how narrowly an engineer is typically portrayed online: the majority of the generated images were of a white male wearing a hard hat.

Challenging and changing the image of engineering

Meanwhile, an online search, conducted by the Royal Academy of Engineering on 21 October 2019, found that 63 per cent of images on the first page of the search results were of a person in a hard hat, despite the fact that only a small minority of professional engineers wear hard hats most of the time.

Image Problem: After scouring the web, this is what AI decided a typical engineer looks like. Image: RAE

Concerns persist about a shortage of engineers.  Many of the emerging and in-demand jobs identified by the World Economic Forum are engineering jobs, yet every year the UK is short of up to 59,000 engineers, while only 12 per cent of the engineering workforce in the UK are female, and nine per cent are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

Research from EngineeringUK shows that more needs to be done to raise awareness of engineering careers and encourage young people to consider the profession. Over three quarters (76 per cent) of young people aged 11-19 and 73 per cent of parents do not know a lot about engineers and the work they do.

Commenting on this latest effort to shift the balance Dr Hayaatun Sillem, Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “Engineers play a profoundly important role in shaping the world around us…but that’s simply not reflected in online image searches. That’s why on This is Engineering Day I’m appealing to anyone who uses or promotes images of engineers to join us in challenging outdated and narrow stereotypes of engineering. We want to ensure that engineers are portrayed in a much more representative way, and that we help young people see the fantastic variety of opportunities on offer.”