Getting More Women and Girls into Engineering

Article by Tegan Norster AMIChemE

As International Women in Engineering Day approaches and with women still significantly underrepresented in engineering, Tegan Norster spoke to engineers about what we can all do to make a positive difference

ENGINEERING employs 6.1 million people in the UK (equivalent to 19% of all jobs) with women making up 48% of the workforce. Women’s representation in engineering and technology is significantly lower, however, at just 16.5%.1

Efforts to break down career gender stereotypes to encourage girls to study STEM subjects are having an effect but there is still a noticeable difference between the number of females and males in STEM education after GCSE level. A 2023 EngineeringUK report revealed that only 18% of those studying undergraduate degrees in engineering and technology are female, compared to 57% for all degree subjects combined.2 That gender gap widens as women progress in their academic careers, with lower participation at each successive rung of the ladder from doctoral student to assistant professor to director of research or professor. Women are also more likely than men to leave the tech field, often citing poor career prospects as a key motivation for their decision.

So how do we grow the number of female engineers? What can we do to raise the interest in engineering for females? What can we do to ensure that women don’t leave the industry and how can we build a more inclusive atmosphere for everyone to thrive? I spoke to three chemical engineers at different stages of their careers to get their lowdown on what more needs to be done.

The interviewees

Elizabeth Donnelly is the CEO of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and has held various IT project management roles, and been a policy specialist and government lobbyist while working in the aviation sector. She also trained as a humanist celebrant.

Vince Pizzoni is a chemical engineer who studied at the University of Nottingham where he is now an associate professor. He spent over 30 years within the energy industry before moving into career coaching and mentoring positions. He’s a member of several boards including WES; and is involved in other charities supporting education.

Laura Grindey is an early careers chemical engineer from the University of Sheffield. She is a committee member of National Early Careers Group at IChemE and European Young Engineers. Since graduating, she has worked in production and engineering design roles within the fine chemicals sector.

What has been your experience as a female engineer or of having female engineering colleagues and how have things progressed during your career?

Elizabeth Donnelly (ED):
I have one key memory of me at school and waiting outside of the computer club. I really wanted to be in there, but I was just stood there in the doorway, waiting for someone to look at me or ask me to come in. But no one did. There were no other girls sitting down in the classroom. Things have really progressed a lot since then and I would now tell my younger self to just walk in and sit down.

This failure of inclusivity persists in the working world too. Here at WES, we know that women lack access to fit-for-purpose personal protective equipment (PPE) as our survey of UK women engineers who wear PPE showed. We are now working to measure thousands of these women to develop proper-fitting PPE and engaging with manufacturing and government to produce safe and effective PPE.

Laura Grindey (LG):
I know some colleagues in the past have had difficulties getting the correct PPE. In my current role, I have found the organisation to be well prepared for female engineers. There are multiple PPE options to be ordered in and we also get fitted overalls; this is not always the case in every company. Poor-fitting PPE poses a risk as it exposes us to potential injury. Just providing smaller men’s PPE is not enough!

The business I work for are looking at more ways to promote the manufacturing industry to women; getting me engaged in these discussions for ideas.

In previous roles, I found that myself or other female colleagues often ended up taking on the admin work, preparing presentations and taking notes. This is often because no one takes the initiative to take notes and, if raised, we are the first to crack and say we will do it. I have been asked to lead brainstorming events because I have “the neatest handwriting”. Because of this, these tasks very rarely get distributed to our male counterparts. I think this can lead to a generic assumption that women contribute less to the business development as they do less value-adding work. For all businesses, this should be something to look out for and address and ensure good system ownership so different staff members are responsible for these tasks for their focus areas. Office housework should be well distributed amongst all workers.

Vince Pizzoni (VP):
If you go all the way back to my time at university, we had one female in the year out of 40 and now, we see cohorts with 35% women, so I have seen first-hand that we have significantly more female colleagues in industry now than when I started. We are also seeing more women in executive roles and on boards which is a really positive thing. But we do still have this issue where there’s a gap or the “missing middle” which is where we see women joining the industry as graduates and then leaving after a few years. I think that one of the problems is related to the culture of companies where perhaps the top management that often drive it are not as engaged with the activities on the ground. There needs to be more leaders in companies that can “walk the talk” regarding diversity and inclusion to encourage women to stay within the field of engineering.

What can companies do to address these issues and increase the number of female engineers?

ED: Companies can partner with WES and other women-focused societies to support women within their companies. By partnering, WES supports development of a company’s diversity and inclusion strategy and raises the company’s profile as an investor in women. We’ve created a space for good practices to be shared with our partners in regular collaboration sessions, allowing organisations to learn from others about experiences in, for example, recruiting and retaining women engineers. Through the partnership, female technical staff are provided support and are given opportunities to expand their networks through our networking events.

Another thing companies should be doing is increasing female representation on their website. When researching for a job application and looking at the company’s website, imagine not seeing someone that looked like you in pictures. It would have you asking yourself why you want to work there.

VP: Having a formal mentor assigned to you when you join is an easy thing companies can implement. A good mentoring relationship should be where the mentor and mentee are learning just as much from each other. I’ve seen reverse mentoring introduced in quite a few companies and it’s a good tool. Mentors might have forgotten or are out of touch as to what is really happening so this dynamic of reverse mentoring can allow for the mentor to learn from the mentee. After all, the mentee is probably exposed to issues that the mentor never experienced themselves in their careers.

One thing that companies should be aware of is that there’s a lot of data that shows companies perform better with greater diversity as you have more innovation and thinking outside the box. As part of WES, I have given talks on allyship and gender equality to a lot of large companies. Kent University defines allies as people who try to use their influence to magnify the voices of underrepresented or marginalised groups and better understand their challenges, issues and struggles. In that respect, women, who represent only 16.5% of the engineers in the UK, are underrepresented. The audiences are surprised to see a man talking on these topics, but these are opportunities to further emphasise my commitment to allyship. I would encourage all men reading this article to put their heads above the parapet and courageously embrace allyship to those in need in their organisations and beyond.

LG: I believe opportunities for women to represent the business such as at careers fairs are so important to showcase the industry to young women as an achievable career path. Giving talks about interesting aspects of STEM-based careers promotes this work to young people who may not have the clarity on what these roles entail, particularly from a young age. It is important for all people to feel as though they have a plethora of options career-wise. This can verify how women in STEM are perceived by the business and shows the business is advocating for their recognition. This promotion, alongside diversity and inclusion teams with allocated budgets, shows the business is actively trying to improve any gender imbalances. Partnerships with organisations such as WES show further commitment to the promotion of women in STEM subjects. Businesses can also provide support in more simple ways such as allowing hybrid or flexible working for people with familial responsibilities.

I would encourage all men reading this article to put their heads above the parapet and courageously embrace allyship to those in need in their organisations and beyond

What more needs to be done now?

ED: Changing the way jobs are advertised is a real thing we are seeing companies start to implement now. Women typically will look at a job advert and if they are not suitable for every single essential and desired skill, they are less likely to apply than males. Adapting language used in job adverts to neutral language will make the job advert more inclusive. Data shows that there are more female applicants when using gender-neutral terms throughout the job advert and when gender-coded language is also neutral. For example, this can be achieved by replacing words like leader or expert with collaborative and dependable.

VP: Companies should aim to establish an atmosphere which is supportive of women, including aiding allyship. Management is also responsible for developing an inclusive workplace where you are not penalised for raising issues you may have faced. I also think informal sponsorship from senior management of younger and high-potential colleagues can really help. Through increased sponsorship, careers of younger individuals can be accelerated as they may be considered for roles which they may not have thought of themselves and thought were out of reach.

LG: More of what we’re already doing, we need to maintain momentum! The diversity of engineers in universities is improving every year and more and more female role models are showing empowerment within the industry. Seeing female leaders in STEM roles builds the next generation of female engineers.

What can individuals do to help themselves and others?

ED: Keep going, keep being vocal and keep standing up for yourself and others. But on a more practical note, one thing that I do and recommend to others is to save nice feedback. Whenever you receive praise or positive feedback in email or a message; take a copy and save it somewhere private. You can revisit all these lovely things that people have said about you which can help with confidence, especially on the days where you don’t feel so self-assured.

VP: There are a few things I’d like to mention here and they’re not in order of importance but as they come to my head:

  • Joining and getting involved in a lot of these organisations like WES is a great way to meet and network with women in the industry. You can learn a lot from them, you’ll expand your external network and the people you meet may also end up being a mentor
  • Develop a networking strategy and keep working on the important relationships – map out the organisation and add them on LinkedIn because I’m a great believer that networking is the key to your future career. Think of networking as completing an infinite-sized jigsaw puzzle. Each new contact you make will bring others to you and of course it’s never finished
  • Be an ally. Support people and be an empathetic listener which is where you take active listening to a new level and listen to what’s not being said by reading body language
  • Raise inappropriate behaviour that you or someone else has experienced. This is easier said than done, especially if you are in your early days at a company. This will come with confidence and time and will require courage

LG: One of the most important things you can do is be confident in your abilities. Don’t doubt what you can do and make sure you continue to step out of your comfort zone. This is the only way to grow your skills and confidence. Getting a mentor or support can reaffirm your capabilities and help your career path within the business. You should also try and champion other women. When there is an opportunity to celebrate successes, be clear about the achievements and the individuals that contributed to it.



The headline on this article was amended from "females" to "women and girls" in response to concerns that females is sometimes used in a sexist manner and does not reflect the fact that not all women are biologically female.

Article by Tegan Norster AMIChemE

Rotating machinery engineer at DNV and a member of IChemE’s National Early Careers Group

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