Women in engineering – where are we now?
According to Business Europe, an organisation which represents more than 20 million companies from 35 countries, the lack of skilled labour in science and engineering is ‘halting economic growth’ in Europe.
Engineering touches almost everything we use in our day-to-day lives yet it still remains a predominantly male-dominated work environment. Two years ago the numbers of women in engineering roles in the UK stood at a lowly 11%, although this is an improvement on the 2015 statistics which showed that just 9% of engineers were female. Last year in The Guardian, Hayaatun Sillem, CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering said that the failure of British engineering companies to increase the proportion of women they employ was ‘embarrassing’, adding that the country needed 124,000 new engineers each year.
Compared to other countries in Europe, the UK is still lagging behind, with Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus leading the way at over 30% of the engineering workforce being female. In countries in the rest of the world, such as Malaysia and Oman, the engineering workforce is 50% female, suggesting that the old adage that girls have less interest or ability in STEM subjects has been debunked.
The speed of innovation in technology right now gives young talent a real chance to make a mark, so companies, and those with influence in the industry, should be doing all they can to encourage diversity.
To mark International Women’s Day 2019, we spoke to two female engineers at different points in their careers – one from the UK and one from Germany – to find out from them what their take is on being a woman in engineering and to learn more about their paths into their careers.
Ann-Marie Bayliss, a product manager at Murata, who has worked in engineering for over 25 years says that even now she is sometimes the only woman in meetings but that at least education seems to have moved on since she was at school.
“Traditional gender roles were very much entrenched when I was at school, with girls studying needlework and boys being given the option of metal or woodwork. I remember my teachers being horrified that I wanted to do two sciences at secondary school and no arts and crafts. Thankfully we seem to have moved on from education being defined by gender but we still struggle when it comes to careers that society deems are more masculine or feminine. Think about male midwives or male primary school teachers as an example. It’s not just engineering that has a gender imbalance going on.”
For Senko Brostmeyer, a business development manager at Panasonic, her decision to go into engineering was solely practical. “I was looking for something to study that would give me a definite job at the end. I knew that as humans we would always need transportation and multimedia communications so I wanted to make sure I was skilled enough in an area that crossed both – so a degree in electronic engineering fitted the bill exactly.”
Despite their success, both women have experienced unconscious bias during their careers due to historic perceptions of masculine and feminine job roles. As Senko recalls, “I went to a meeting and my colleague introduced himself as the commercial guy and me as the technical expert, however, at first the customer directed all of their technical questions at my colleague. That changed pretty quickly when I answered them all.” She goes on to suggest that these attitudes are changing, “Sometimes tricky customers seem to warm to having a woman in the room who speaks their technical language and I’ve found that it’s a positive. I’ve managed to move deals along and brokered better conversations as a result of being different to them. I know what they need because I’m an engineer like them and they seem to respond well once they know that I can answer every technical question they have.”
Ann-Marie finds her career exhilarating adding that the speed at which technology is changing is part of the buzz. “There are so many options and possibilities available in electronics but it’s vital to find a mentor, to look for role models and not to be afraid of asking for support. Having female engineers mentoring younger females just starting in their careers can give more than just confidence to the new graduate. Seeing the reality of what work is like, how to handle tricky situations and just having someone who understands the pressure of a male-dominated environment can be crucial in navigating those early months.”
Senko also thinks we need to get the message out that engineering doesn’t have to be anything to do with screwdrivers. During our interview she admitted that the first time she picked up a screwdriver was right at the end of her three and a half year degree, adding, “For me it’s much more about maths. If you can do maths you can be an engineer. If you can’t do maths but you can learn maths, then you can be an engineer.
“When I started my degree I was one of only three women in a cohort of over 200 and I was the only one that didn’t have any experience in electrical engineering. Everyone else had tinkered in their spare time but I came in completely clueless. It really didn’t matter, as I soon picked it up and have been so lucky to walk straight into a great job – first in the electrical vehicle department at Opel and then secondly as a technical business development manager at Panasonic helping customers design in the components they need to use with their PCB boards.”
Ann-Marie is clear too that we need to educate the younger generation on the exact nature of engineering. She says, “There is a still a lack of understanding that STEM isn’t about repairing washing machines or heavy industry but that it covers a multitude of applications and career choices including alternative energy and renewables, artificial intelligence and advancing healthcare technology.”
She adds, “All hires should be based on aptitude and skill rather than gender but it’s vital to get women interested at a young age. We need to do more to dispel the myth of a male, middle-aged engineer in a white hard hat and show diversity on TV, in advertising and within companies. Only when we have role models at all levels will it be truly a level playing field for women in engineering.”
While being a minority may initially be intimidating, engineering is a career based on ability and merit, as evidenced by the success of Ann-Marie and Senko. Our future depends on the field and we need to continue to embed the fact that women have an equal part to play and an equal opportunity to forge ahead. From grassroots initiatives in schools, through to role-modelling and peer support within companies, the opportunities are endless for anyone with an engineering interest. Everyone in the industry has a part to play in encouraging diversity, and by International Women’s Day 2020 it would be great to think that we’ve moved some way towards that goal.