This month sees International Women in Engineering Day 2021 (INWED). Organised by the Women’s Engineering Society and to be held on Wednesday, 23 June, this year’s event highlights the work that women in engineering around the world have undertaken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and their efforts to help support lives and livelihoods every day.
The WES – a UK-based charity and professional network of women in engineering, scientists and technologists – says INWED 2021 will celebrate ‘the best, brightest and bravest women in engineering, who recognise a problem, then dare to be part of the solution; who undertake everyday “heroics” as much as emergency ones’.
WES’ chief executive Elizabeth Donnelly goes further. ‘The day gives women engineers around the world a profile when they are still hugely underrepresented in their professions.’
‘As the only platform of its kind, it also plays a vital role in encouraging more girls and young women to embark on engineering careers.’
Encouragement is needed
It seems that such encouragement is required. According to figures analysed by the WES from a report published by Engineering UK, the percentage of women in engineering in the UK in 2018 was only 12.4%, albeit up from 11% in 2017, while just over a fifth (22%) of working women make a living across the engineering sector, and that figure includes women working in specific engineering roles.
It could potentially be different, however. Young women tend to do better in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – subjects at school than their male counterparts, with the Engineering UK report highlighting that in all STEM A-Levels (ATAR equivalents in the UK) except chemistry, more girls get A* to C grades than boys, including Further Maths, Maths, ICT and Design and Technology.
Yet when it comes to working in the sector, fewer than half (46%) of girls aged 11 to 14 said they would consider a career in engineering, compared to nearly three-quarters (70%) of boys.
The economy and wider society is clearly missing out on more women bringing their skills and insight into a profession that traditionally has been a bastion for men. The more enlightened in the business community know that diversity matters. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, companies are 15% more likely to perform better if they are gender diverse than if they are not.
Women think around problems
According to Donnelly, women bring variety of thought to the workplace. ‘Women have learned to think around a problem because they don’t have the physical strength of men.’
Faced with spending four hours changing a CNC machine they couldn’t lift, a team of women rethought the change and reduced it to 90 minutes without having to manually lift the machine.
‘This also benefits men in terms of the amount of time dedicated to a task – and therefore increased production – and reduction of physical injury. This mindset then goes beyond the physical to consider many problems from a different perspective, which leads to rich solutions.’
Donnelly says women bring a perspective that often gets missed. ‘Simply asking why something is placed at a high level where women won’t be able to reach can make changes to support 50% of the population’, she says.
The gender pay gap issue
One area where women in engineering do seem to be doing better than those in other parts of industry and the wider economy is in pay.
According to a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), the median gender pay gap is 11.4% for engineers, versus 17.3% for the wider UK.
While it was less than feared, it was not an insignificant gap, and the RAE report says that closing it ‘will take concerted effort within the engineering profession’.
The RAE said it wanted to see actions ‘that go beyond addressing this initial recruitment challenge to close the gender pay gap through addressing the retention and progression of women to more senior and higher-paid roles’.
The gender pay gap could also be narrowed by more women entering the profession, but the RAE describes progress in this area as ‘disappointingly slow’.
More women in the sector is something the WES’ Donnelly would very much like to see.
Obstacle to more women is fewer women
‘The biggest obstacle that women face is the lack of women in the industry. It means that male engineers, students and apprentices often question women’s ability to do the job in a way that doesn’t happen in other fields like medicine’, she says.
Donnelly adds that men are so used to seeing other men as engineers that they can believe women aren’t capable of doing the job.
‘On the contrary’, says Donnelly, ‘women engineers have had to be very determined to even enter the industry, so we find they are very bright and more than capable of keeping up with their peers.’
Women, Donnelly says, tend to lack confidence and are overlooked for advancement ‘because they don’t speak up. Engineering managers need to consider this and actively seek capable women who just need some encouragement to progress.’
At the end of the day, a great engineer is a great engineer, male or female. ‘In that regard, gender doesn’t matter’, says Donnelly.
Spreading the right message
‘Where it does matter is that women have been fed messages about what they could be, should be or are good at, and these turn them away from pursuing engineering.
This means that we’re losing out on a portion of those great engineers because they never get the chance to realise their potential. Happily, most companies have realised this and are taking steps to correct the idea that engineering is a gendered domain.’
Donnelly goes on: ‘Organisations like WES are shining a light on role models to illuminate the path for women studying or in the early stages of their career, showing them what’s possible.’
Hopefully International Women in Engineering Day 2021 will play its part in helping to advance the cause of women in the sector still further. After all, as well as the women themselves, society as a whole stands to benefit. To find out more about the activities happening on 23 June, visit their website here.