23 JUNE in the UK each year marks National Women in Engineering (NWED). The celebrations this year were overshadowed somewhat by the UK’s referendum on whether to leave the EU, but nevertheless, there were 200 NWED events across the country, and over 350 school events, with tens of thousands of women thought to have attended.
NWED was set up in 2014 by the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) to celebrate its 95th anniversary, as a way to encourage girls to take up engineering and celebrate existing female engineers. The third NWED included a webinar, events at schools, networking events, workshops, “day in the life” videos of female engineers and activity days. WES also released its Top 50 Influential Women in Engineering List 2016, which included four chemical engineers, Dame Judith Hackitt, Dame Sue Ion, Allie MacAdam and Lynn Gladden.
This year’s NWED culminated in The Big Discussion, a panel debate hosted by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) at its headquarters in Savoy Place, London. Compère for the evening was Antony Oliver, former editor of New Civil Engineer and now a communications consultant.
The four-person panel was headed by Dawn Bonfield, a Chartered materials engineer, a Fellow of WES, the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) and the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) and CEO of WES. She was joined by Alison Baptiste, also a Fellow of ICE, and director of strategy & investment
flood and coastal risk management at the Environment Agency; Sarah Haslam, a Chartered mechanical engineer, trustee of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) and powertrain engineering manager commercial vehicles at Ford; and Steve Morriss, CEO Europe, Middle East, India and Africa at AECOM and a Chartered civil engineer.
Oliver opened the debate with the somewhat controversial assertion that “engineering is male, pale and stale”, in other words, lacking diversity. Unfortunately, the early part of the debate did little to dispel this, focussing on the problems still faced by women in engineering and the issues faced by industry.
Many of the problems are largely cultural. Engineering is still seen as a male profession, and in the UK at least, just 8% of professional engineers are women. At home, it is still often women who take the lion’s share of childcare, and are more likely to take a career break to do so than men. 57% of those who take career breaks never return to engineering, compared to just 17% of men.
One structural engineer present spoke of her trouble in being taken seriously on site as a young woman, when all her colleagues were 60-something males. Sometimes, it seems the only way to be taken seriously is to behave like a man, she said.
The women on the panel all had similar experiences, with Bonfield saying that many women struggle with not wanting to stand out, and wanting to be seen as an engineer first and a woman second. However, many also do not want to be “one of the lads”. Morriss, however, added that where there is a corporate culture of working 80 hours a week and drinking ten pints of beer on a Friday night, up to 90% of men may be feeling the same pressure to conform and be uncomfortable with it. In that case, he said, it is important to tackle that culture for the benefit of everyone.
Haslam is always careful to try to be feminine as part of her efforts to be perceived as she wants.
“I know when I need to be assertive. I will drop my voice and talk a bit slower. I will change my style depending on what scenario I’m going to be in. If I know I’m going to be in a room full of guys, and I’m going to be the lead person, I will absolutely make sure that day, that I’m wearing a dress, I have lipstick on, that they will know I’m a woman. I’m not there in my trouser suit,” she said.
Baptiste recounted a story from one day when she was picking up her daughter from school. One of the fathers came up to her in the playground and said that he’d heard someone who shared her name talking about engineering on Radio 4’s Today programme, and was then surprised to learn that it was her, that she wasn’t just a mum. She believes women need to talk more about what they do, and make themselves more visible as engineers wherever they are.
Trying to work out what the solutions might be will be difficult.
“I don’t know what is actually in the mind of a middle-ranking, brilliant female engineer in my business. What is it that’s stopping her from getting to do my job? I have to sit down and I have to talk to her and my colleagues need to do the same to really understand her views and her circumstances, and then to work with her individually,” said Morriss.
In the spirit of the event, the main thrust of the evening looked at how to begin to tackle and solve some of the problems. Some interesting points came up from audience members.
Mentoring from more senior colleagues regularly came up as something that would help support women in engineering. One audience member pointed out that many mentorship programmes focus strongly on having women mentor other women, but she doesn’t believe that this is necessary, and men can be just as effective as mentors, explaining from a more general perspective how to succeed as an engineer, rather than specifically as a female engineer.
One action which is often touted as a solution is having quotas for the number of women in a company, or on the board. However, the panel and audience were agreed that this is not necessarily helpful as it requires so-called “positive discrimination”, and a woman is chosen for a position to make up the numbers, not necessarily because she’s the best person for the job, a point made by several throughout the evening. This can lead to resentment. Instead, something called “positive action” should be used instead, according to Baptiste. For example, if two people are equally qualified for a job, one a woman and one a man, the recruiter should always choose the woman. Haslam believes that targets, rather than quotas, can help to focus activity.
“There is a difference between good intent, which looking back now I feel quite ashamed about, and really concerted, positive action,” said Morriss, adding: “We set ourselves some targets of 40% women in our business and 20% of senior leaders by 2020 and then we started working out how to get ourselves there, through recruiting and development. It’s 20,000 actions by 2 or 300 people over four or five years that’s going to make the difference.”
Companies can also do more to help women, particularly in the provision of flexible and part-time working, or job-shares, to help with childcare needs, but for men as well as women. More men should be encouraged to share parental leave, and the practice normalised and the culture changed to allow them to feel able to do so. In some places, this is beginning to happen. Haslam said that once upon a time, Ford would be empty of women during school holiday periods, but as the years have progressed it has become more and more common for fathers to disappear too.
Ford has also introduced the concept of the “returnship”. Essentially, this is similar to an internship but for those returning to work after an extended career break, for example after raising children. This helps to retain talent that would otherwise be lost.
All of the major engineering institutions have very few female fellows. In IChemE, for example, just 6% of Fellows are women. According to Baptiste, this may be partly down to the perception that it is still seen as a male thing, and that many fellowship procedures are seen as quite “archaic”. She has only recently become a Fellow and for a long time, she simply didn’t see the point of it, seeing it merely as more form-filling and a more expensive membership fee. Now she understands the value of the sense of self-value and the networking opportunities it affords, and believes that increasing the number of female Fellows will come partly down to communicating these benefits to women.
It will also be vital to get male engineers on board with strategies to support female engineers, and of course, getting into schools and colleges and promoting engineering as an exciting career choice, not just to pupils but to their teachers.
Bonfield believes that it is important to change the language used around engineering to change the public perception of it. For example, problems on the rail network are often blamed on “engineering works”, when in fact the engineers are generally the ones trying to fix the problem, rather than causing it. Technicians fixing washing machines and the like are often referred to as “engineers”, giving the impression that engineering is a hands-on, dirty job requiring overalls and PPE. While in some industries, that may be the case, engineers are just as likely to be developing smart technology or designing processes and systems, and this creative side of the engineering discipline should be promoted to appeal more to women. Equally, organisations like Engineers Without Borders showcase the caring, hands-on side of engineering.
“I will now not refer to engineering as solving problems, I will only refer to it as creating solutions,” says Bonfield.
Each of the panellists was invited to suggest some action points at the end of the evening. Bonfield said that change has simply been too incremental, and change in attitudes towards female engineers must now be “disruptive”. An example of disruptive change could be ensuring that all companies in a supply chain have the same equal opportunity standards as the company at the top, for example, making an Athena Swan Charter compulsory when awarding supply contracts.
Baptiste advocated the use of targets when recruiting women and being creative about how to put across the importance of a diverse workforce, while Haslam picked up on one of Baptiste’s earlier comments about being more visible.
“Talk positively about your job with person standing next to you at the bus stop, or the next time you’re at a party, tell people you’re an engineer,” she said.
So what will success look like?
“Success for me looks like when a girl has the equality of choice in careers, to be in position where a young girl, or boy, any young person, can look at any career and have the choice, really have the choice, of going into that career without any barriers at all. Then we’re in a position where people are going into careers because they want to,” Bonfield said, adding that many girls don’t feel able to go into engineering and STEM careers, but equally, many boys feel unable to pursue careers in caring industries. Success means breaking down these stereotypes.
Adriana Vargas, technical safety engineer at ODE, chair of IChemE’s London & South East Young Members Forum and an IChemE Diversity Champion, helped to organise the event. Overall, she was pleased with the debate and the points raised, but said they expected more men to attend the event.
“At the end of the day, they are colleagues, managers, husbands, brothers or (future) parents of women engineers and their support is key to creating gender equality in the workplace,” she said. “Many companies of all sizes are working to further support women and men engineers by creating spaces of discussion such as diversity networks, updating their policies (flexible work, PPE for women, paternity/maternity leave) and encouraging inclusion. There is still a lot to do to get more men to join the discussion, and for them to understand the importance of celebrating NWED.”
Andy Furlong, IChemE director of communications, was one of only a few men in attendance.
'This was a really useful meeting. Even for a pale, male, 50-something, like me! It allowed me to make the point that whilst 34% of IChemE's student membership is female, only 6% of our Fellows are women. This means that there is a lot of work to be done both in terms of encouraging female Chartered Members to progress to Fellow and providing platforms to highlight the contribution that senior female chemical engineers make to professional life,” he said.
The debate was interesting and informative, but disappointingly, time and again, the same old points come up. Great strides have been made in equality and promoting the value of female engineers, but it seems there is still much to be done. Hopefully, some of the points made and solutions suggested will filter back to management boards, and we will finally start to see some real change.
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