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09 Jul, 2020 / BY Neil Sharp

How much have attitudes shifted towards women in engineering?

women in engineeringThe state of gender equality in engineering still appears to be mixed. Some women report experiencing nothing but respect from male colleagues, but there are many other anecdotes about women forced to leave roles due to discrimination and micro-inequalities. So are attitudes towards women in engineering really changing? In an industry where females have been so long underrepresented, we investigate both ends of the spectrum, in the hope that 2020 is the year we are finally breaking the stereotype.

According to a study by the Royal Academy of Engineering, 98% of female engineers find their job rewarding. However, women make up just 11% of the engineering workforce. Why could this be? Arguably, it's down to years and years of discrimination towards women in the sector.

When we look closely at those reasons, the literature itself has been known to display underlying sexist language and connotations. In an article by Manglin Pillay (the CEO fo the South African Institution of Civil Engineering) he writes that:

“The fact that more men occupy high profile executive posts is tremendous not because of gender but because of an appetite for workload and extreme performance requirements at that level.”

He goes further to say that women “chose to have the flexibility to dedicate themselves to more important enterprises like family and raising children.”

The implication of this statement was problematic. The fact that biology should be blamed as the sole reason women are scarce in engineering is exactly the root of the problem. Thankfully, Pillay later apologised for his article. But his comments still highlighted the fact that perhaps the engineering world is not designed for a woman.

A study in 2017 on female engineers who had left the field revealed that one of the main factors was an inflexible environment that made work-family balance difficult, as well as a lack of recognition at work. This again was extremely problematic.

But it wouldn’t be fair to tarnish manufacturing businesses with the same brush. Women are very much needed (and very much welcome) in the STEM sector. But a stereotype has plagued our society for some time which links STEM jobs with masculinity, and while male and female engineering students perform as well regardless of gender, more women switch their subject because they feel they ‘don’t fit in.

Thankfully, we are starting to see change. We live in a progressive era, and attitudes, workplace environments and stereotypes are shifting to becoming more inclusive. We can’t argue with biology, and flexible working patterns are becoming the norm in order to support working mothers. Many companies are going further to support women with generous maternity packages, breastfeeding rooms and sanitary disposal bins (which were lacking for so long in the past). Building an environment that is just as welcoming to women as men is key if we are to beat the misconception that engineering is a ‘man’s job’. 

Through British Science Week, a ‘smashing stereotypes campaign’ was introduced to help tackle stereotypes in STEM, and it’s estimated that the number of women in STEM careers is set to reach one million in 2020. This gives us even more evidence that attitudes are shifting and the industry is opening up to become more diverse and inclusive.

We’ve also seen an increase in young women pursuing STEM in higher education. And in the US, 18-20% of engineering students are female, and Newcastle University with its prestigious mechanical engineering programme is known to be a huge advocate for women in STEM. 

The pervasive skills gap makes attracting female talent is more important than ever. Reportedly, 1.8 million new engineers and technicians are needed by 2025. but highlighting the need for change and many women are now breaking the stereotype and successfully making their way in the sector. Career satisfaction is reported to be high and more than 80% of female engineers are happy or extremely happy with their career choice.  

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