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Published: 16 June 2016

How to get more women into engineering

Only 14.4% of people working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in the UK are women. Surrey alumna Michelle Hicks (MEng 2014), assistant engineer in the highways and bridges team at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, explains what needs to be done to inspire more women to choose a career in STEM.

Gender diversity is an issue before we even reach employment; in fact, it’s already an issue at university where, taking my class as an example, fewer than 10% of the students were female. To overcome this challenge, I believe we need a two-pronged attack, firstly to ensure enough women are studying engineering to begin with and then that they stay in the industry and can reach the highest levels of the profession, should they aspire to do so.

My experience at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff has been incredibly positive. I work in a team that is 40% female in a business where over 20% of the employees are women. However, an awful lot more can be done, not only to attract women into the profession but to retain them within the industry.

Taking off the hard hat

The question is why so few women? In my experience the way we market ourselves plays a huge part. In civil engineering we have a tendency to only show construction sites in marketing materials, even though many of us spend most of our week in an office. I definitely enjoy watching my designs being constructed, but that doesn’t mean I want to be on a construction site every day.

In reality, there are many more opportunities in engineering and I think we need to focus on this if we are to attract a more diverse range of people into the profession. We need to move away from the images of labour on site and emphasise the work completed by engineers to solve global problems like providing clean water and vital infrastructure.

Influencing the Influential

My wake-up call came when I was presenting to prospective students and their parents during an Open Day at the University of Surrey. On more than one occasion, I had parents asking me ‘if it’s ok to be a woman in engineering’. And sadly this view persists because we do not have enough female role models in engineering to show otherwise.

When I decided to study engineering, I remember getting many positive responses when I told people the course I was going to be completing at university. However, a significant proportion asked me why I would want to pursue this career. The problem was that they didn’t understand the role of an engineer. More worryingly, some of these comments came from people who are now working in schools as teachers or teaching assistants.

We need to spend more time updating the views of those that have the greatest influence on young people – teachers and parents. There is already some great work being done to show pupils the range of opportunities presented by engineering. At WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, for instance, we have the ‘Launchpad’ programme, which provides one to two-week work placements for local pupils, aged between 14 and 19, to inspire and encourage them to join the ranks of the nation’s problem-solvers.

I also believe that when looking at attracting a more diverse range of young people into our industry, we shouldn’t just be telling them how good civil, mechanical, or any single engineering discipline is, we should tell them how great engineering is full stop! We just need that spark, that one thing that will make them look into engineering further.

Retaining talent and ending discrimination

The other problem is that at the higher ranks of the profession there simply isn’t a big enough pool of engineers to draw from. The proportion of female graduate engineers entering the profession is increasing, so if we can retain this talent we should see more women at the upper levels. But, of course, it isn’t as simple as that as some women will take some time off to have children. What we need to make sure is that this doesn’t signal the end of their career progression.

Those women who have proven themselves to be good engineers will have the drive to succeed, and taking maternity leave will not change this. So let’s support these women so they can pick up their career where they left off.

In terms of my aspirations for the future, I certainly don’t think being a woman will hold me back in my career aspirations. However, I definitely welcome unconscious bias training to help ensure female employees, and anyone from a minority group, are not at a disadvantage. In my opinion this is a much better way to go than introducing quotas encouraging positive discrimination. At the end of the day, surely we want to remove discrimination, not reverse it.

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