There are few female faces in engineering lecture theatres at universities, on many a factory floor and in the boardrooms of FTSE-listed manufacturers. The government has been talking about the importance of diversity and equality for years. Although the message appears to have sunk in, the industry has made slow progress.
The percentage of female engineers in the UK is still only around 7% or 8%. The UK fares the worst of all European countries in this respect. Those with the best equality statistics are Portugal, where 40% of engineers are female, and Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus, where women make up roughly 30% of the engineering workforce.
The situation in the UK has improved – the number of women working in engineering has doubled over the past 20 years. But research by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC) suggests that at this rate of change a 50:50 gender split in science, engineering and technology professions is out of reach within the 21st century.
More than 35 years after the government passed the Sex Discrimination Act, the sector that accounts for one fifth of the country’s economy has much work to do.
Annette Williams, director of the UKRC, explains: “Engineering is one of the last professions to become open to women.” Women have broken into other traditionally male-dominated sectors such as law, medicine and veterinary science, and these fields have become more attractive to women. “I think there is something particular about engineering – it’s got a particular culture and association. It has been the toughest for women to get into in any numbers and feel that they have full acceptance.”
She goes on: “Employers need to know that they are getting the best possible talent available. If women are turning away from these careers for reasons that are not to do with capability or competence then employers are missing out.”
Research shows that diverse groups perform better. Having a range of different backgrounds to draw on fosters innovative thinking, as diverse people look at problems differently and can offer more variety of solutions.
A recent report published by Engineering UK looking into why the country has the lowest proportion of female engineers in Europe found that girls are effectively ruling themselves out of a degree in engineering by the age of 14 with the subjects they choose to study at school. Even those who take an academic interest in maths and sciences turn their backs on working in related professions.
At best 24% of female science, engineering or technology graduates end up working in these fields long term, at worst just 8%, according to the report. The fact that these women are working below their level of qualification, or are unemployed or inactive, is estimated to cost the economy £2 billion, says the UKRC.
But the tide is starting to turn. An ageing workforce has put companies under pressure to look at all available talent and the industry has begun to take diversity more seriously. “The sector has moved now to realise that the culture of the engineering professions has been designed by men for men, and women who come to work in them often turn a blind eye to quite considerable barriers and an accumulation of disadvantages over a career,” says Williams.
These barriers include workplace culture, the difficulties of returning to work after having a family, and glass ceilings.
To address these issues, many of the big companies now employ diversity managers to help shape business strategy to include diversity. One such company is BAE Systems, which has had a dedicated diversity post for almost two years.
Donna Halkyard, who holds this job – head of diversity and inclusion – explains: “The company recognised the opportunity to take a slightly more strategic approach right across the business, to really help use diversity and inclusion to drive performance.”
The company’s executive committee has made diversity and inclusion a priority and created specific objectives on the issue.
Halkyard works to create strategic plans on diversity that are implemented across the business. Working closely with the executive committee she has developed a tool called the diversity and inclusion maturity matrix. This maps out diversity and inclusion across five levels, from basic legal compliance right up to full integration where diversity is an integral part of the business. BAE’s businesses can use this to keep a check on how they are doing and set targets.