Improving female representation in engineering

The UK engineering sector is facing a severe talent shortage. A 2020 survey from engineering firm MPA found that 37% of professionals in the industry identified the skills deficit as having the biggest impact on their sector. And this challenge is growing. A government study in 2018 predicted that 186,000 skilled recruits would need to join the industry every year up to 2024 to offset the shortage of talent.

With these hurdles to overcome, the sector will need to ensure it is getting the most out of all talent pools, yet the data suggests it is facing an uphill struggle to recruit women. In fact, 2021 research from Engineering UK showed that women make up just 14.5% of all engineers in the UK, up from 12% in 2018.

Must do better

Dimitra Christakou is Commercial & Services Director at WISE, a campaign that aims to encourage and help organisations attract and retain more female talent in the STEM industries.

She says that although there have been improvements, there is a long way to go for the industry. “Although you definitely see a change happening across the years, the rate of change is very slow,” she explains. “We would like to see the numbers growing faster and that’s why we focus on employers and helping them change the way they approach women and attract them.”

She adds that the challenge is likely to get more complex as engineering firms require more technology talent. “The rate of women joining the tech workforce is even slower than engineering and that is something that concerns us quite a bit.”

Intention must become action

With the challenge so clear, are employers actively working to improve female representation? Christakou says yes. “The mentality has improved significantly in the past years. Our members are very interested in increasing the numbers of women in the STEM space. They see the benefit of having diversity of thought and want to include the best talent in their organisation.”

However, she warns that intent must be turned into focused action if they are to see a real boost in numbers. “Many organisations do not focus on change as a proper business initiative and unless you do that, unless you have a framework (such as our Ten Steps programme) that can guide you step-by-step and show you what to do and how to treat business processes, you won’t change.

“There is an issue when senior executives understand the problem and want to ensure that new frameworks are in place, but then quite a lot of the work is passed to middle managers who have to deliver it. That’s where it can become a bottleneck and that’s where we try to help our members understand the issues and challenges in place.”

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Understanding the scope of the challenge

Low representation starts extremely early. Data from Engineering UK found that only 60% of girls aged 11 to 14 think they could become an engineer if they wanted to, compared to 72% of boys. This drops to 53% in the 16 to 19 age range, where only a quarter of girls say they would ever consider a career in engineering.

“The pipeline has to be corrected from the beginning, from when girls are 11 and 12 years old and start making decisions, all the way up to when they are 22-23, when they make decisions about their employers,” says Christakou.

With such large swathes of female talent deciding against routes into engineering, she adds that it will be important to look to other talent pools to plug the gaps.

“Our most recent data shows there is an untapped pool of non-STEM undergraduates that have the potential to be attracted into STEM. They can be upskilled or reskilled or trained and they can help close the gap.

“Secondly, a large number of women have taken time out [from their career]. They might have a relevant background or transferable skills, but they can’t find a job because of the perception some employers have about hiring a returner. We think these are two topics that have to be explored to close the skills gap.”

Action now

While the challenge to improve representation seems huge, there are steps organisations can take today to better attract existing female talent.

Christakou recommends leaders work with middle management to understand the bottlenecks that prevent them from finding female talent and to adjust KPIs and objectives to allow them to improve on this.

“The other thing is the job ad,” she says. “It is deeply documented that women do not engage in the same way as men when it comes to job adverts. The language might be restrictive. We have seen evidence to suggest that job ads with a lot of unnecessary technical terms doesn’t help with female recruitment.

“We recommend that companies review the language before it becomes public. Many organisations see significant differences in the number of women they attract when they do that.

“There is also the element of making clear in the job advert whether you offer flexible working or not, or if people can work remotely. Things can also be done about salary ranges. Data has shown that when salary ranges are advertised in job adverts, women can feel a bit unsettled and go for the lower range rather than higher.”

Looking to the future

In the longer term, Christakou says that giving existing female talent the opportunity to act as role models can help encourage young and returner talent to join the sector.

“We feel very strongly that something that enables young women is seeing other individuals that are a similar age or from a similar background that have taken STEM jobs. A lot of individuals never had that exposure.”

Furthermore, she says that identifying a range of role models can also be beneficial. “If a role model is 23 years old, it will be much easier for school pupils to relate to them. If you want role models for returners, it’s better if they come from similar age groups and have faced similar challenges.”

She adds that helping the families of young girls to understand the opportunities available can also be beneficial, as they are then more likely to encourage them to support their child to pursue engineering roles if interested.

Leading the way

Another longer-term goal is to improve the paths into leadership for women in engineering. As with job adverts, Christakou says organisations should assess the schemes they have in place and the criteria they consider when identifying potential leaders.

“There is a lot of debate on whether to have leadership programmes just for women or if they should be mixed,” she says. “Either way, it comes down to organisations needing to broaden the way they view leadership talent. There might be individuals that come from different backgrounds or that need different working conditions. You shouldn’t exclude those that work flexibly or that work remotely.

“It’s about broadening the criteria, being open-minded and trying to understand the actual potential of the individual. Firms can then put mentoring in place to allow individuals to step up and say, ‘I want to be considered for a leadership role in the future’.”

Improving diversity and inclusion will make the engineering sector stronger. Contact us to discuss how we can help you to improve representation in your organisation.  

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