ENCOURAGING WOMEN INTO ENGINEERING

This is a thorny topic for me. On the one hand, yes, this country has a shortage of engineers, and a great way to resolve that is to encourage more women to take up roles in this field. On the other, I think that a lot of the highly-publicised profiles of women in STEM careers are not representative of the experience of most women who work in these fields. And the statistics support this. Women in comparable STEM roles to men are paid less, valued less, and progress more slowly. How could I recommend that sort of future to another person?

And then we face a chicken and egg issue. Without a representative workforce, the prevailing culture will remain unchallenged and unchanged. But the workforce will not be more representative until there are more women and minorities working there.

The UK government has been advised on the consequences of not supporting more jobs in engineering, and it is recognised that if women do not enter or remain in the profession, we are effectively cutting the talent pool in half.

The Guardian featured an article (link below) promoting careers in engineering to females. This is great for visibility, but it really doesn’t tell the whole story.

What’s it like to be a woman in the engineering industry?

All of the women in this piece talk about the exciting things they do in their work, which is great. Engineering can be fulfilling and rewarding, and fun. But the politics, culture and personalities in the industry can get in the way of actually getting the job done.

One of the engineers in the piece talks about proving herself in a male-dominated industry. This is something I’ve encountered many times. Why should women have to prove themselves any more than men should? Or have to work harder than men for the same pay? Oh, except it isn’t the same pay.

Another says “My advice is do not hide your femininity at work and relish in your different perspective – act on what you believe is important”. Two things: most successful women I know in my sector of engineering act very masculine. And if you do look quite feminine, people will comment on it. And if you act quite butch, people will comment on it. So either way you’re damned, but if you try to be one of the boys you’re more likely to succeed. Another: “relish in your different perspective”. Well, it would be great if different perspectives were acknowledged, but in my experience groupthink is encouraged and anyone with a contrasting idea is swiftly put in their place. Where are these workplaces that encourage this sort of thing? Because I haven’t found one yet.

Someone else says “There are many women where I work in very senior roles which just goes to show that gender does not affect ambition and that you should always aim high.” Well, I agree with the last part. Ambition is genderless. But I’m not seeing the women in exec-level roles. I attend events specifically for women in engineering, which have a core regular attendance of maybe 30 people. I enjoy meeting other female engineers, hearing success stories and about other projects. But that’s just a small handful of people. How many other engineers out there are male? Women make up just 9% of engineering professionals in the UK.

“You’re not treated differently and gender isn’t an issue”. That may be the case where you work, and I’m very happy for you. I wish that all workplaces were the same.

“I think it’s fantastic to see more and more women joining our ranks in what used to be a traditionally male industry”. Well, yes, that’s the overall goal. Things are changing, but we’re really not at the point where we can say that it used to be a traditionally male industry. 91% male is a pretty overwhelming figure.

I suppose it makes me sad that we’re still having these conversations these days, or that there is a need to target women specifically to encourage them into STEM subjects. If the playing field were truly level, everyone would feel welcomed and we wouldn’t be talking about certain groups being “turned off” by certain subjects. I feel that very little has changed with regard to the perception of women in my (rather niche sector) over the last 15 years. The only place I’ve truly felt an equal is at University, being on a fantastic undergrad program with great tutors and the chance to shine. A step into the world of work was a shock. Of course study is different from the workplace, but I was totally unprepared for the marginalisation and disillusionment that I experienced. It seems that my goals become further and further out of reach, while they are easily attainable by others around me.

A final thought. This article in the Harvard Business Review details research carried out on women’s career trajectories, and finds that common beliefs about women’s career progressions are unfounded.

Rethink What You “Know” About High-Achieving Women

It’s also referenced in this article from NYMAG:

Stop Blaming Women For Holding Themselves Back At Work

Leave a Comment