Female Engineers: Bridging the gender divide

Has anyone noticed the elephant in the manufacturing plant? She’s a sizeable matriarch and she can’t be ignored for much longer. There’s a staggering paucity of female engineers working in the industry. Fact. But for how much longer?

We’ve seen Sir James Dyson lamenting the dirth of bright, new engineers coming through in the Western world. How can the process industry begin to plug its labour shortages when such a ferocious gender imbalance prevails?

Females in engineeringHow ferocious? Well, Dr Alana Collis, who is equality and diversity policy lead at the Institution of Chemical Engineers wrote in the Guardian recently: “Analysis published this month found that just 8% of professional engineers are female, compared to 51% of the UK population and only one in six engineering undergraduates are women. In the United States, fewer than one in five engineering graduates are female.”

What’s apparent is that prevailing societal, and employer, attitudes infer that the engineering field is still a man’s world. Technical industry, and its prerequisite skills, have not perennially been sold as viable options for women. That of course creates an acute dearth of female role models within a male dominated landscape. So too, the contrasting work life balance needs,  and subsequent inflexibility of work patterns, can be off putting to women.

Little wonder then, that of those few that do pursue engineering qualifications are lost to the industry immediately. Dr Collis adds that: “In 2011, a survey of 5,500 women with engineering degrees in the US found that 4 in 10 either did not pursue an engineering career after graduation, or had left the profession completely.” The picture is similar in the UK as “three quarters of women on science, technology and engineering courses do not go into occupations in their chosen fields of study.” That’s according to Sue Sljivic, director and head of global sales at environmental consultants RSK.

So what’s being done to address the issue? According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME): “Intel is collaborating with SRC Undergraduate Research Opportunities (SRC-URO), Engineering is Elementary (EIE), and other programs and organizations to promote engineering awareness among female students in the public school system. The Intel Foundation also established the Intel Science Talent Research, a pre-college science competition, which has attracted strong female high school candidates.”

US toy manufacturer, GoldieBlox has taken a rather more hands-on approach to “disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.” Those are the words of its CEO, Debbie Stirling, herself an engineering graduate from Stanford. Her eponymous kid inventor, Goldie, provides a role model for aspiring young female engineers as manifested by an award-winning book and a suite of female friendly construction toys.

For a small nation of just over two million inhabitants, Latvia has an exemplary record of producing and retaining a female engineering populous that amounts to an impressive 30% of the workforce – the highest in the EU. Janina Doviborova, M.Sc-Ing told The Engineer that the answer is simple: “We do not look at things and say ‘that profession is for a women and that profession is for a man.’” The former Soviet Union emphasis on engineering continues to permeate through generations of female school leavers who, inspired by female relatives, took up the career with zero stigmatism or prejudice.

Female engineer

“Give women lots of opportunities to succeed at technical tasks. Verbally encourage them - tell them you know they will be great engineers or computing professionals, and why they will want that type of career,” says Joanne McGrath Cohoon, an associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia.

“With these steps, we could double the number of technical people working to make this a better world,” she concludes.

 To any female Engineers - do you notice the lack of us in Industry?

Have your experiences encouraged Engineering as a career option? Are we moving in the right direction? 

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