Why the industry needs more women in engineering

Engineering is missing out because of latent prejudice and unconscious bias preventing women from entering the profession

The look of disbelief when Hayaatun Sillem tells people she is a chief executive in the engineering sector is all too familiar. “Some people are better at rearranging their faces than others, but the fact that many people don’t immediately assume I could be a CEO can be frustrating at times,” she says.

The more women who enter, the more we can promote them so they are able to act as role models for the next generation

As the first female chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAENG), Ms Sillem is committed to replacing outdated stereotypes with a true reflection of the myriad faces of 21st-century engineering.

“There is a huge array of exciting, stimulating opportunities, but a mismatch in people’s perception of the profession,” she says. “We need to make sure that engineering’s fantastic role models are even more visible and their voices heard so the negative gender perceptions start to break down.”

Having more women in engineering relies on cultural change

With women making up just 12 per cent of engineering professionals, the race is on to accelerate gender diversity in the UK.

Roma Agrawal, associate director at American multinational engineering firm AECOM, feted for her work on London’s Shard, says a major factor is promoting an inclusive and varied culture.

“I used to go to sites and there would be pictures of naked women in the site cabins,” she says. “Thankfully, the culture has changed and I haven’t seen that for a very long time.

“Going into an organisation, you can tell very quickly whether it is an open environment, whether for women, people of colour, introverts and extroverts, working class, or with English as a second or third language. If company culture is inclusive, then it will be self-perpetuating.”

Strategies can include transparent recruitment practices, promoting flexible working for all, securing management buy-in and exploring policies such as corporate social responsibility.

“It is a virtuous circle. The more women who enter, the more we can promote them so they are able to act as role models for the next generation,” adds Ms Agrawal.

Competition for female graduates is high, companies must up their game

A key issue is the pipeline for professionals; currently 16 per cent of engineering graduates and fewer than 8 per cent of apprentices are women, and not all end up working in the sector.

Companies must distinguish themselves to attract female recruits, says Helen Wollaston, chief executive of the WISE Campaign, which promotes gender balance in science, technology and engineering.

“Companies need to up their game as there is a lot of competition for female engineering graduates, who can choose from a good range of options outside the profession,” she warns. “Women engineering graduates are highly sought after, so to attract them there must be a good range of benefits, reputation and a track record in having a diverse workforce.”

Around 60 major companies have signed up to WISE’s ten-step programme focusing on career opportunities, committing to challenging bias, being creative in job design and sharing good practice.

Among signatories are Airbus, with a target of 25 per cent women in its workforce by 2020 and 20 per cent in senior leadership, and Shell, which showcases inspiring female engineers through its Engineering Real Life Heroes project.

Setting targets is important, argues Elizabeth Donnelly, chief executive of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), but they must be “relevant, achievable and measurable”.

“We are often approached by companies that really want to increase the number of women in engineering, but don’t know how to do it,” says Ms Donnelly.

Unconscious bias a hindrance to having more women in engineering

Immediate actions include ensuring images reflect a diverse range of people, tackling any unconscious bias in how teams share work to cut out gender stereotyping and examining recruitment processes.

“We know language in job adverts can be subtly gender coded, which can make a woman feel a company is not the place for her,” she says. WES has an online gender decoder tool for recruiters to analyse their job adverts and highlight potentially off-putting language.

It also plans to run a recruitment fair alongside its next student conference, so employers can start developing relationships with future engineers. Separate research will examine the value of mentoring in converting graduates into employees.

Practical tools to “help businesses convert their aspirations to reality”, are critical in changing the conversation, says RAENG’s Ms Sillem. Its inclusive recruitment toolkit helps companies avoid unconscious bias, while a pilot project is helping startups and smaller businesses tackle low gender diversity.

A graduate recruitment programme is also bringing together employers, universities and young people from under-represented groups to grow their understanding of the recruitment process. “Ultimately, people have to be appointed on merit, but we can help to reduce the gaps,” says Ms Sillem.

Encouraging girls’ interest for sector is first step to more women in engineering

However, more young women choosing to study engineering is paramount for a seismic shift in industry representation, she emphasises. RAENG’s This is Engineering digital campaign launched this year and will run for at least three years, showcasing the range of engineering careers, from the film industry and aerospace to problem-solving in the developing world.

Meanwhile, the government’s own Year of Engineering aims to tackle the skills shortage and could impact on the talent pipeline for the next decade. Initial findings show interest among girls has grown, with 53 per cent saying they would consider a career in engineering, up from 34 per cent last year.

Government minister Nusrat Ghani, who is heading up the Year of Engineering campaign, explains: “It’s vital we encourage more girls to consider careers in the sector, not only so they can enjoy creative, well-paid jobs, but also to ensure young people with diverse experiences, viewpoints and skills are part of shaping a world that works for everyone.”

Working with partners including Apple, Siemens and the RAF, a focus has been dismantling “misconceptions of engineering careers and who these are for”, adds Ms Ghani.

“The industry is currently missing out because of latent prejudice and unconscious bias,” Ms Donnelly at WES concludes. “Get it right and the diversity of thought will make a massive difference.”