International Women in Engineering Day focuses attention on the many opportunities for women in engineering – as well as celebrating those paving the way. However, while hitting its 9th anniversary this year, still only 16.5% of engineers are women.
Clearly, much progress needs to be made in order to encourage more women into the sector. In light of the day, we spoke to nine women in engineering about their experiences and advice for what businesses can do to support their female engineers and encourage more women into the industry.
Opening the door through education
Unfortunately, many outdated archetypes of gendered careers circulate even now.
Latika Joshi, Software Development Manager at Cubic Transportation Systems, describes how “pre-described notions of engineering being a career for men can have a serious impact on girls’ ambitions to pursue the subject in further education and as a career.”
She reflects, “when I joined University, girls made up only about 6% of the class, and it’s been estimated that nearly 40% of women who earn engineering degrees either quit or never enter the profession.”
This is where education comes in, explains Ronit Polak, vice president of engineering at Exabeam. “Teachers should be the first to combat the misconception that a career in engineering is a ‘man’s world.’ Many young girls have the idea that engineers code all day, which discourages them from expressing interest in the field. This is something we desperately need to change.”
She furthers, “educating young girls about the wide range of engineering occupations might help them understand where their interests might fall inside the engineering umbrella sooner. Early exposure increases the likelihood that children, particularly girls, would pursue a career when they reach college age and beyond.”
Other ways of expanding accessibility to this industry can come in the form of education initiatives. Samantha Thorne, Head of People at Node4, outlines how the talent strategy at her organisation plays a key role: “Working with local schools and colleges to provide work experience and placement opportunities to GCSE and Computer Science students.”
She adds, “we recognise the role our industry has to play in keeping women and girls engaged in STEM subjects and are committed to helping them to imagine the possibilities and career paths available to them, and realise their potential. Once these women have entered the workforce, we work hard to support and empower them through participation in leadership programmes, as well as ensuring our policies, benefits, and culture support their full participation in the workplace.”
Despite more effective education, Anais Urlichs, Developer Advocate at Aqua Security, was still deterred from entering this industry. “Personally, I did not consider pursuing a career in technology until university. It didn’t seem like an option because no one had taken the time to educate me about potential careers in the sector. As a young girl, I had been discouraged from trying activities in that space. Simple conversations about the jobs and technologies that are out there would have made a huge difference for me. It’s something that everyone in the industry can practise and is so important: simple encouragement and open communication is the crucial tool that has for too long been overlooked.”
Education, while important, cannot be relied upon alone to treat the disparity of men versus women entering this industry. Visibility, opportunities and support within organisations are key if we are to see real change in the future.
Svenja De Vos, CTO at Leaseweb Global, details, “more female role models are needed to shift perceptions, and practical measures, such as training and internship opportunities, can assist to develop a positive image of the Tech industry as a pleasant and productive place to work. As our world becomes increasingly defined by technology, now is the time for the tech industry to create and elevate more female role models who can inspire young girls to follow in their footsteps.”
Retention is key
Getting women into engineering is one challenge, retaining them is another challenge entirely. “With a report showing 19.2% of Fortune 500 CIOs identify as female, STEM organisations have much work to do to close the digital gender divide and motivate and support women’s full careers in STEM,” outlines Shirley Knowles, Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at Progress.
“There’s also a high drop-out rate of women in the tech industry as a study, led by Accenture and Girls who Code, revealed that 50% of women abandon technology careers by the age of 35.”
Pournima Parange, Engineering Manager at ConnectWise, explores the additional barriers women can face if they have children. “Working mothers are still expected to manage their home and children, alongside their office work. The pressure to juggle both, and complete everything on time without compromise, can cause women to struggle.”
She suggests, “Organisations should support female workers and ease the pressure, providing equal opportunities for growth and encouraging women to consider what is possible in their career.”
Progress and change will come, but they are dependent on the right initiatives, support systems, education and opportunities, and we can’t expect to see this immediately. According to Nicola Aitken, Microsoft Business Manager at Ascent, “the full impact of initiatives like Women in Engineering Day may take some years to be felt. But, as they say, from small acorns mighty oaks grow. As growing numbers of women demonstrate they can be successful in science and engineering, more role models will be created, and sexist stereotypes about women’s ability and interest in this wide-ranging field will erode. I wholeheartedly look forward to that.”
And for women looking to enter the industry?
Doviana Tollaku, Operations Manager at Glasswall, concludes by sharing her advice. “Believe in yourself. Don’t let obstacles get in your way — the second you let doubt creep in, you will want to give up. Be passionate, seek the opportunities and go for it — it will be worth it and drive you to great success.”