How a new generation is embracing gender diversity in engineering
While great progress has been made in the sector over the past few decades, younger people are now leading the charge when it comes to making engineering an inviting field for womenSupported byAbout this content
Fri 24 Jul 2020 14.12 BSTLast modified on Fri 24 Jul 2020 14.14 BST
When structural engineer Martin Burden first came to the UK from Australia 30 years ago, the engineering profession was thoroughly male-dominated, he says. In his first UK job, there was just one female engineer out of 50 males, while in Australia he hadn’t worked with a single woman engineer.
“It felt like a gentlemen’s club that didn’t want women to be involved. And as a result, they felt that they couldn’t be,” he says. “It’s hard to put your finger on why. It comes down to not being welcome. With science, technology, engineering and mathematics in universities, women didn’t feel like it was something they were naturally steered towards.”
How times change. Today, the majority of the engineers Burden works with are female. In the design office at engineering and architecture company Ramboll, where he is consulting director, about 15 out of 20 engineers are women. He has witnessed a sea change in female participation.
“For entry level design and engineering at the first three or four rungs on the ladder, gender balance is about 50/50,” he says. “But it drops off past the age of 30 or 35 to around 15% higher up the business.”
Changing engineering’s reputation as a male preserve and making women feel welcome in the profession requires a transformation in the attitudes of both men and women. Engineering firms are putting in place training in unconscious bias to alert men when their thinking and behaviour may unconsciously discriminate against certain groups, including women.
Attitudes of younger male engineers seem a world away from the archaic approaches of the past. Kristian Goodchild, a graduate software engineer at engineering firm Renishaw, believes everyone involved in engineering should focus on the lack of diversity in the field. “Without prolonged thought on these issues, many male engineers would not take the time to consider the lack of diversity in the workplace and the possible reasons why there is a gender imbalance,” he says.
Diversity training, discussion and constant self-questioning are required to identify and deal with examples of bias, he adds.
He says he has noticed subtle – though probably unconscious – “microaggressions” from senior male engineers about female engineers and their ability to do their job. He concedes that similar comments are also made about male engineers, but he wonders whether women are held to higher standards. Even so, he hasn’t experienced substantial gender imbalance, as about 40% of the engineers in his department are women.
Meanwhile, Jesse Mitchell, who since graduating last year has worked on Renishaw’s mechanical engineering graduate scheme, says he was unaware of the issues of conscious and unconscious bias when he first started his job. But his company has been active in training and educating staff to raise awareness of these factors and how staff should act in the workplace to avoid discrimination.
He says that some of his female engineering friends are apprehensive about the gender imbalance in situations such as meetings or idea sharing sessions. Others are unfazed by the imbalance while some actually enjoy the gender ratio.
While engineering firms are waking up to the need to increase diversity, an area that has seen little progress is construction sites, where there are still very few women engineers or workers. “The construction environment is not really tailored to women’s needs,” says Burden. An example is the personal protective equipment of hi-vis jackets, helmets and boots. These invariably do not come in women’s sizes and are not designed to fit women. “Women think if I’ve got to go to the site, I’ve got to go through loops and hoops to actually be able to get a piece of kit that makes me feel comfortable. It’s an unconscious thing. If you’re a woman wanting to go to a site, it’s not inviting. It’s not actually set up for you.”
Even so, in most cases, male attitudes to inclusivity have improved – it will take time for young women to see engineering in the same light as more gender-balanced professions such as medicine, media or education. But with men becoming more aware of the issues surrounding gender bias, the dial is moving in the right direction.Topics