#ThisIsEngineering - What's it like to be a female engineer, and how can we increase their numbers?

#ThisIsEngineering - What's it like to be a female engineer, and how can we increase their numbers?
Alys Frankland

#ThisIsEngineering - What's it like to be a female engineer, and how can we increase their numbers?

Engineering is still a male dominated industry. However, the tides are turning and females are making more of a mark. Here we find out how.

Close your eyes and picture an engineer. What are they wearing? What are they holding? Where are they? Are they a man or a woman? You've probably got a very specific image in your head, and we want to help change that. We're submitting a selection of photos to the Royal Academy of Engineering's (RAE) #ThisIsEngineering collection, that will help the engineering sector to increase the diversity of its visual representation. 

A recent study by the RAE analysed more than 1,100 images of engineers found online and using Artificial Intelligence (AI), generated images based on the analysis. Most of those images were of white men in hard hats - hardly an exhibition of the diversity that's present in the industry. You get the same results from Google Images, where 63% of the first page of images for 'engineer' contain men in hard hats. Based on this research the Academy, and over 100 companies including the BBC, Facebook, Google and EDF Energy have pledged to increase the public visibility of more representative images of engineers and engineering.

Engineering has been a male-dominated profession for centuries, and although women now make up 12.37% of the UK engineering workforce, they're still drastically under-represented.

What's it really like to be a woman working in STEM?

As a specialist recruitment company that works with engineering candidates every day, we wanted to get the female side of the story. We approached women in the engineering sector to hear their experiences about education, discrimination, mentoring and their working environment, and to take some photos of our own to submit to the RAE.

Paige Seaton works on an engineering shop floor, working on sensors that eventually make their way into aircraft, both commercial and military. She's in her 20s and worked in a factory, building diesel engines, before starting at her current role last year. We asked her some questions about working in an engineering environment. 

What made you want to enter the engineering field?

I wanted to do something to prove that this isn't just a man's job.

What difficulties have you faced (if any) during your career?

None to date!

Have you experienced any sort of discrimination in the workplace?

There was a time when I was being given precious jobs by my line leader that were never given to men.

How was this dealt with and were you satisfied with the results?

I went to management to discuss this issue, and it was resolved.

Have you ever had a female mentor in the workplace, and how did it affect your career?

Yes I have. I was happier and got on better with her than my previous male managers. It was easier to speak to her about things, and I felt more comfortable going to her with problems I was facing, as I felt like she would be more understanding.

Can you share a positive experience from your career that has motivated you to keep moving forward? 

Yes - I've been able to prove people wrong who thought I wasn't up to the job, and that feels great!

Paige has no formal engineering education and found her role through a family friend. She received two weeks of intense training, with written tests throughout to prove she understood the concepts. Her lack of engineering-specific education isn't surprising, considering the statistics around young girls and the subjects they study at school.


STEM statistics for girls in secondary/further education

Nearly half of all girls would consider a job in engineering between the ages of 11-14, which is a really encouraging number. As they get older however, this number drops by 21% by the time they reach their A Levels. Comparably, boys have a similar drop-off rate, but the number is far higher to begin with, at around 70%. Only 25% of girls are still looking at a career in engineering at 16-18, even though the take-up of STEM GCSEs is similar between the two genders, and girls consistently outperform boys in STEM A Levels, including Maths, Further Maths, ICT, Technology and Design. Female engineering university students are also more likely to go on and get a First Class or Upper Second-Class degree, so what is happening between the ages of 14 and 16 to cause such a dramatic change of heart for these girls? 


Female role models

Only around 17% of STEM lecturers in UK universities are female. To become a professor, it can take 8 years or more of higher education, so by the time women are 30, they may have just started their careers in teaching. This is of course the case for men as well, but if the women in question have chosen to take a career break in their 20s in order to have children, this can result in a further delay. When young women are researching higher education, and they don't feel represented, they're more likely to be reluctant to apply for the courses.

If young women make it through their education, and then go on to look for roles in the sector, when only 12% of the engineering workforce is female, they may feel they will be unsupported when they start work, and when you don't see people like you, it's easy to assume that you don't belong. Men can be just as understanding as women of course, but they simply don't understand some of the pressures and difficulties that women can face in the workplace. Faye Jackson, a consultant at Carbon60 who specialises in engineering roles said: 

"The lack of female role models in engineering workplaces makes it really difficult for women to see themselves working these roles. It can feel daunting when you've got no-one who understands the specific problems you might be facing, and it's easy to feel unsupported, which makes women reluctant to forge a career in this sector."

With the figure of 12% echoing in our minds, it seems unlikely that women starting engineering roles will have a female role model to guide and support them in such a male-dominated environment. 


What is being done to change this? 

Althought 12% is double what it was in 2013, there is still more to be done. UNESCO have launched a campaign called Cracking the Code: Girls' and women's education in STEM, which aims to understand the drivers behind this situation, and try to reverse the trends. There are several levels that need to be addressed in order to make changes, which can be seen below in their visual.

By UNESCO - Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69472784

By attending to each of these, it's believed that girls will be armed with everything they need to be able to have a successful career in STEM. It's important that girls are allowed to see their options from a young age, enabling them to visualise a future career in STEM, and that responsibility falls to parents in the early years, and teachers during time spent at school.

For more information, click here to read the full report by UNESCO.

To see the Royal Academy of Engineering's new #ThisIsEngineering image library, including the submission by Carbon60, click here.

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