Around the world, governments and private companies are trying to combat the diversity disparity that exists in engineering. This issue is being addressed starting at the elementary school level, to encourage more and more children, regardless of background or gender, to become interested in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology studies, that eventually leads to inspiration to follow a career path into one of these fields.
Trying to inspire more women into careers in engineering has been a focus for governments around the world, particularly in western Europe in the past decade, where certain countries are looking at a dramatic decrease in working people in this sector because of a generation moving quickly into retirement age. Engineering companies, trade organizations, and learning institutions have been producing research and even warnings for a number of years about the engineering skills shortage we are about to embark into globally. So what is the current state of gender diversity in engineering?
The reality of the statistics can make for uncomfortable reading
Data from the National Science Foundation has shown that just 12.9 percent of all US engineers are presently women. Meanwhile, in the UK, according to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s (RAE) Diversity Programme Report 2011-2016, the current female engineering workforce is a mere 8 percent.
Highlighting the importance of including women in engineering workforces, Caroline Spillane, director general of Engineers Ireland, recently said: “To deliver the best creative solutions to societal needs, we need to narrow the gender gap and create balance within the profession.”
A lack of retention is the main reason there are low levels of women in engineering. Professor John Perkins’ 2013 Review of Engineering Skills revealed that although 15 percent of engineering and technology degrees are awarded to women in the UK, just eight percent of professional engineers are female, and only 4.6 percent of those registered with their professional institutions are female.
Nadya Fouad, psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, recently surveyed 5,300 women who graduated from engineering degrees in the past six decades to establish why many chose not to remain in the industry. She found that only 62 percent of the respondents were still working in engineering. Are many women leaving the workplace when they start families? Are they attracted by other challenging industries because of their adaptability and skills set?
According to the women surveyed, engineering can be challenging for women to succeed in because it tends to be a traditional male-dominated sector and not evolving with societal norms at an even rate. So perhaps institutions and companies need to delve deeper into the work environment and see what opportunities there are for providing them with opportunities to progress. Speaking at an American Psychological Association convention, Ms Fouad said that when women grow frustrated with their work environment and choose to leave their jobs, they often leave the engineering industry.
She went on to say that it’s when women enter the professional world after graduating that they encounter the issues that cause them to leave engineering. Here is an perfect starting point where the opportunity to change the engineering gender disparity can be grasped.
Racial diversity in engineering is, unfortunately, not faring any better than that of gender.
The RAE’s Diversity Programme Report showed that only six percent of engineers in the UK are minorities. In the United States, 115,000 out of 2.1 million engineers are Black. So where can major improvements be made?
Dr Hayaatun Sillem, deputy chief executive of the RAE, has explained that 71 percent of white engineering graduates in the UK find full-time jobs after six months, but just 51 percent of black and minority ethnic students do the same.
At the time of this article being composed, a new 2017 film chronicling the lives and work of three African-American women who worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center in the 1960s has just been released.
Intersecting both gender and race, ‘Hidden Figures’ focuses on Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson, who were part of the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1961. However, they had to do it while working in a male-dominated and segregated environment.
The film has served as a reminder of the fact that even after 50 years, there is still plenty of positive change that can be brought about in the engineering sector. Women and ethnic minorities are still underrepresented in engineering.
In the Diversity Programme Report 2011-2016, chief executive of the RAE Philip Greenish, wrote: “The engineering profession is constrained in a great many ways by its lack of diversity and it has not responded to societal changes as well as many others.”
Expanding on how action is required, he explained: “We have asked leaders in industry and professional bodies to step up to the mark, to recognize their personal responsibility in their own domains and to work together to deliver the change we need.
“Without their commitment, we will continue to underperform in creating the inclusive cultures, behaviors and actions in our working environments that will encourage people of all backgrounds to enter and remain in our profession in the numbers that we need.”
Dr Sillem has announced that the RAE has opened a survey of people working in engineering. She added that the results will be published later this year and that they will help to inform the new Engineering Talent Project and the work of the Academy’s Diversity and Inclusion Programme.
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