OPINION: Why we need more women in engineering

by Hayaatun Sillem | Royal Academy of Engineering
Wednesday, 23 June 2021 15:24 GMT

Women engineers: From L-R Ursula Burns, Dame Stephanie Shirley and Professor Sue Black. Photo supplied by Royal Academy of Engineering

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We must overturn the caricature of a grubby profession for men in hard hats and high-vis jackets

I never set out to become a champion for diversity and inclusion. In fact, I spent much of my career trying to hide in plain sight. As a younger woman of colour, from a mixed ethnicity, Muslim background working in engineering, I was painfully conscious of being visibly different from most of the people around me. I wanted to be recognised for my capability, not my gender, skin colour or any other characteristic.

But as I became more senior, I realised that my approach was becoming a barrier to my ability to foster inclusive environments where everyone felt welcome, safe and able to contribute to the full.

I subsequently learned to embrace my differentness – to find strength in it – and today I’m proud to be able to draw on this in advocating for positive change in diversity and inclusion in engineering. It’s a change that is urgently needed.

Today the engineering community celebrates International Women in Engineering Day. As part of our contribution, the Royal Academy of Engineering together with Amazon and BecomingX, launched a series of new films profiling extraordinary trailblazers in engineering: Ursula Burns, the first African American woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company; Professor Sue Black, award-winning professor of computer science and bestselling author of ‘Saving Bletchley Park’, who left school at 16; and Dame Stephanie Shirley, founder of a pioneering software company and first woman president of the British Computer Society, who arrived in Britain as an unaccompanied child refugee.

Behind these inspirational stories, and the achievements of many women in engineering across the world, lies a disturbing truth that explains why International Women in Engineering Day is needed. Engineering remains one of the least gender diverse professions with an unacceptably slow rate of improvement.

In the UK, only 14.5% of those in engineering jobs are women and in 2020 women represented just 18% and 16% of accepted applications to engineering and computer science degrees respectively.

At the current rate of progress, gender parity among entrants to engineering degrees will not be achieved until 2085, and the situation is even worse for further education. 

The situation is yet more challenging for women of colour, and the pandemic may be further hampering progress with evidence that women in tech are more likely to have lost their jobs than men.  

There is an overwhelming evidence base for the business benefits of diverse teams and inclusive leadership, from creativity and innovation to talent attraction and motivation to health and safety. I struggle to understand why any leader would not want to build diverse teams and inclusive cultures. But there are also specific reasons why this matters for engineering.

Engineers shape our world. They design and build the physical infrastructure that sculpts our cities, homes and transport networks. They create digital products and services that power our lives, including the communication tools that we have relied on so heavily during the pandemic. They mediate the benefits of advances in biomedical science so that new vaccine technology can result in vaccines manufactured at scale and delivered safely to the healthcare workers who administer them.

Engineers will be crucial to tackling every global challenge of our age, from climate change to cybersecurity. Surely it is self-evident that we want – we need - a profession that looks more like the society it serves?

At the Academy we’re working hard with a wide range of partners to overturn the grossly inaccurate caricature of engineering as a grubby profession for men in hard hats and high-vis jackets, including through our open-source This is Engineering campaign which includes social media content aimed at teenagers, an image library featuring real engineers in action, a virtual Museum of Engineering Innovation, and a national awareness day every November.

But we need your help getting the message out there that engineering is a creative, human-centric career with higher than average earnings and job satisfaction – engineering is for everyone. And it’s in all our interests to make sure that’s the reality in the engineering profession.

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