International Women in Engineering Day: A call for change

A look at why more needs to be done to raise the profile of women engineers and encourage more people to consider engineering as a profession for all.

Today is International Women in Engineering Day, an annual celebration designed to raise the profile of women engineers and encourage more people to consider engineering as a profession for all.

 

Considering that women make up a mere 12.3% of all engineers in the UK, International Women in Engineering Day is a crucial opportunity to encourage women - particularly young girls - to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematic (STEM) subjects. Women are often deterred from STEM before they even begin, with schools not doing enough to cultivate girls' interest in these subjects, or to challenge the misconception that careers such as engineering are for ‘hard-hat wearing' men.

This has a knock-on effect. According to UCAS data, between 2017 and 2018, only 19% of students studying engineering and technology degrees at university were female, despite the fact that female students outperformed their male classmates. However, the UK currently suffers from a STEM worker shortfall, needing between 37,000 and 59,000 extra engineering graduates and technicians annually to meet current employer demand. Attracting and attaining female engineers is vital to meet this quota, and for wider economic growth.

With this in mind, five female STEM experts have shared with IDG Connect their own experiences and advice to those girls and women who may be considering a career in STEM, and to businesses asking: what can we do to make a positive change?

 

STEM opens doors

Imogen Smith, Applications Engineer at Content Guru believes that STEM subjects offer a foundational knowledge that is applicable to any career. She describes:

"Studying Maths at university, I realised that I really could choose to follow any career I wanted. I was also lucky to be on a Maths course that was almost 50% women and I never felt like I was treated differently to the boys at all. But I am aware that this is not the same story everywhere. There is nothing more annoying than feeling that you have been side-lined or treated differently because of something out of your control, like your gender. Everybody should be given equal chances to excel in what they are good at or interested in.

"I am so grateful for the opportunity now to learn to code in many different languages. I know that I would never have been able to pick up this skill as fast as I did without my Maths degree. I think there is still more to be done to find ways that everyone can learn to love, and learn, to code to start closing the gender gap."

 

Showcase female engineers

However, often by university-age, gender socialisation has already done enough "damage" to deter girls away from STEM subjects such as engineering. "Unconscious bias often starts in primary school, where girls can feel social pressures from peers of their local community, to pursue other avenues, like humanities and arts," explains Agnes Schliebitz-Ponthus, Director Consulting at Fluent Commerce.

"Lack of visible representation in STEM careers reinforces these pressures. According to PWC's Women in Tech Report, more than three-quarters (78%) of A-Level and University students couldn't name a famous female working in technology.

"I've been fortunate in my career to have worked alongside some incredible female software engineers from a variety of backgrounds. These women, working hard to be successful in their field, pushed me to perfect my own skills and now I'm using those skills to help some of the world's leading retailers adapt their businesses to the rapidly changing world of ecommerce. I'm one of the lucky ones, and I want to encourage more women to follow a STEM-focused career.

"There are many male advocates for women in STEM, but I do believe that when women are supported by role models of their own gender, there is much to gain. Mentorship programs enable women to share their experiences, support and encourage each other's careers. However, raising awareness and showcasing successful female role models within the industry is also paramount if girls are to realise the possibilities for a future in a STEM discipline."

 

A long way to go

Debra Danielson, Chief Technology Officer & SVP of Engineering at Digital Guardian, also feels grateful for being part of a diverse team with female representation. However, she said: "Initiatives like Women in Engineering Day shine a light on how far we as an industry have to go.

"There are serious pipeline problems in getting girls and young women to be interested in tech, engineering and STEM. We have problems attracting and keeping female university students interested in computer science. We have problems recruiting and hiring enough women, retaining women beyond mid-career in tech, keeping women in tech careers and not shifting them out. We have pay parity and promotion equity problems and we have to constantly fight pervasive expectations that women aren't as technical as men.

"At Digital Guardian I'm fortunate to be surrounded by an amazing and diverse team. I never want to work again in an organisation where I'm the ‘odd man out,' and I'd love it if all women had the opportunity to experience this in their careers."

 

A changing landscape

Caroline Seymour, Vice President, Product Marketing at Zerto, too offers hope that the number of women in STEM is increasing:

"I have worked in the tech sector all my career. I chose this path as I am fascinated by the speed and ever evolving technology landscape. When I first started there were very few women in tech and this has certainly increased over the years but not as fast as i would like to see, and it is still predominantly a male-dominated industry. There is most definitely a huge opportunity here for women, especially within the engineering, software, cybersecurity, cloud, and AI sectors.

"There is still so much to do to recruit women in this space and that must start at school age.

It's not for the light-hearted and you have to be strong, and not easily intimidated to overcome bias that you might face, but that's all part of learning, and you keep at it. Perseverance is important, be confident, believe in yourself and your work, and others will too."

 

Climb the career ladder, even if you can't see other women at the top

For women that decide to embark on STEM careers such as engineering, they are vastly underrepresented in senior and high paying engineering roles. According to research conducted by the Royal Academy of Engineering and WISE, female engineers earn around 11 percent less than their male counterparts on average.

"Even in 2020, women find it so much harder to climb the career ladder," concludes Agata Nowakowska, Area Vice President at Skillsoft. "Persistent unconscious bias remains and this means many women lack the confidence to apply for promotions or ask for pay rises. As their expectation level is often a lot higher than their male counterparts, they are far tougher on themselves, working hard to prove their ability. Research shows that that when applying for a new role, women will apply only if they feel that they meet 95% of the job description, whereas men tend to be more confident in applying for roles and promotions they are less qualified for.

"Unrealistic notions of perfection hold women back from advancing at work. In fact, research shows that even from primary school age, girls are significantly less likely than boys to view themselves as capable of becoming an engineer if they wanted to. Women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector are largely underrepresented. If we want to see more women in STEM, we need to change the way we see women, and how they see themselves. Only by showcasing female successes, encouraging mentorship and helping build confidence, will engineering be acknowledged as a profession where women not only belong, but thrive."