Engineering firm, Capital NDT, takes a look at women role models, facts about female engineering, possible discrimination in engineering and what can be done to get more women working as engineers
In 2016, Engineering UK declared that the engineering industry was in a crisis period and was losing workers at a troubling rate and would soon be facing a major skills shortage in the UK. This severe recruitment crisis is seeing an estimated 69,000 to 186,000 engineering workers leaving each year to be replaced with only 46,000 engineering students and apprenticeships.
This issue is being compounded by the weakened EU labour force thanks to the uncertainty around Brexit and the improving economic conditions and wages across Eastern Europe, causing many EU migrants to return home for work.
Clearly, this skill shortage crisis needs addressing and the UK needs to be increasing its talent pool. The answer might have been staring us in the face this whole time. Women make up 51% of the UK population and actually outnumber men, yet they are woefully underrepresented in the engineering workforce.
Clearly, women represent a massive untapped resource which could be the answer to the UK’s looming engineering skill shortage crisis.
The female engineering workforce
The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professional in Europe, with women making up an estimated 11% of engineers. Countries such as Cyprus and Bulgaria are currently leading the way with an average 30% female workforce.
Similarly, the statistics are equally unflattering in education. In 2017, only 15% of UK engineering undergraduates were women and only 14% of female A level students were pursuing a STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) course. Compare this to countries such as India which boasts a rate of female engineering undergrads which is nearly double at 30%.
This shortage of women pursuing engineering and other STEM subjects in education suggests that the problem isn’t going to be improving anytime soon without serious changes being made.
Is our education failing female engineers?
It certainly is ironic that despite the UK being one of the first countries to allow women to study and receive certifications in mathematics and science subjects, there are so few women pursuing engineering and STEM subjects in education.
A big contributor to this might be how engineering is taught in schools. If girls are introduced to engineering as a noncreative, male-oriented and dominated industry then they are understandably going to be put off.
In reality, engineering is all about improving things and making them more efficient. By changing how we represent and teach certain subjects in schools, we will begin to change perceptions by young people and open up these fields as natural interests to both genders.
A prime example of this having an impact is the Ashesi University in Ghana which has achieved an almost 50-50 split in men and women on its computer science programme. The president of the university claims one of the ways this was achieved was by referring to engineering as problem-solving and discussing how engineering can help to improve the lives of others and the environment.
This re-branding of engineering helps to appeal to women’s theorised natural propensity to want to improve things around them to the benefit of themselves and others. This theory is supported by the many inventions that have been created by women engineers that have improved a piece of equipment that wasn’t doing its job properly or as efficiently, such as window wipers, dishwashers and even baby nappies.
Are we providing a safe and welcoming environment for women?
There is another issue which is preventing women from entering engineering that is more succinct but harder to fix. This is the effectively shutting of the door to female applicants through a combination of workplace culture, subconscious bias and plain old sexism in the workplace.
An outdated, pro-masculine culture in engineering certainly isn’t helping women enter the workforce and those that do are made to feel uncomfortable or inadequate in the workplace. This does lead to the rise of inspirational stories of women striving to be “better” than her male peers but is fundamentally damaging to gender equality in the workplace.
The shortage of women in the workplace goes on to cause a shortage of women in the workplace. It is not unusual for a female engineer to find herself alone in her workplace, which only contributes to the attitude that she and others do not belong. This creates prejudices and harmful stereotypes which overlooks, undermines and undervalues female engineers all over the country.
One study reported that 40% of female engineers felt that they weren’t treated equally in their workplace. A further 60% said that they thought that their male peers progressed further and easier in the workplace.
The more troubling side of this discrimination that is often undiscussed is the inappropriate actions of male colleagues towards women in the workplace. A disgusting 63% of female engineers said that they had overheard or experienced sexism directed towards them in the workplace. One engineer, who wanted to remain anonymous, submitted a Reddit post telling how her male colleagues would talk about her sexually whilst she was in the room and inappropriately touch her.
This kind of sexist behaviour and bias has no place in any industry today and is a product of old, integrated habits of a male-centric industry. These types of attitudes are difficult to fix and similar to above, the challenge of breaking this behaviour starts with the education of the dangers of stereotypes and unacceptable behaviour to create a more understanding and open work environment.
The benefits of diversity in the workforce
Encouraging women to enter engineering not only could resolve the skill shortage crisis, but can also have a profound positive impact on the economy. A recent study found that companies with women on the board performed 54% better than those without, which would suggest that some diverse thinking, attitudes and experiences in the workforce can only have a positive impact.
Similarly, recent studies have indicated that companies are 15% more likely to perform well if they have a diverse workforce. Diversity is also considered key for innovation. In a recent global survey, 85% of talent and corporate diversity leaders agreed that diversity in the workforce encourages different perspectives to increase the generation of ideas and to drive innovation.
Clearly, the advantages of making efforts to encourage and welcome women into the engineering industry far outweigh any perceived disadvantages and we should be making every effort to invest in improving the intake of engineering workers before this looming crisis leaves us with a serious shortage of skilled engineers.