Women in engineering: building a sustainable pipeline of future talent
Whilst the government is keen to encourage young future talent, the diversity gap is still yet to be addressed, says Professor Dimitra Simeonidou.
Engineering is one of the UK’s broadest industry sectors and plays a significant role in the country’s economic and social wellbeing. According to Engineering UK’s earlier State of Engineering Report, engineering contributes around 26 per cent of the UK’s GDP alone. However, despite this, both businesses and institutions have forewarned the UK engineering skills shortage, identifying gaps and urgent jobs roles that need to be filled throughout the sector in the coming years.
Indeed, Engineering UK estimated that at least 1.8 million engineers need be trained by 2025. However, women make up just 12.3 percent of all engineers in the UK and only hold one fifth of professional job titles. What these figures suggest is that there is a woeful skills gap in the engineering sector and, in order to address it, as well as ensure the sector’s success, the industry must be reviewed as a whole – starting with addressing the gender disparity.
Nurturing a sustainable pipeline of female talent
Despite recent progress, there are still many barriers for women in engineering. For example, consider a career in academic or industrial research and the required travel as being an active part of an international professional community – maintaining an equilibrium between work, family life and caring responsibilities can be a challenge. Oftentimes, women are expected to perform a balancing act and, naturally, this can impact their career progression. As such, there should be more support for women in this respect, not least because of the hours they devote to their research and teaching. This is especially true within industry; companies need to attract and keep talented women in the workforce when they choose to have a family.
There are still needs for more support for women interested in pursuing careers in engineering. Whilst there may be initiatives, such as International Women in Engineering Day or the WISE campaign – which seeks gender balance in science, technology and engineering, from the classroom to the boardroom – the statistics suggest that the profile of women needs to be raised dramatically. Women in senior positions have a responsibility to nurture and encourage a pipeline of future female talent, sharing their experiences, struggles and regularly offering advice – and there also needs to be more intervention at earlier stages.
Schools, teachers and government should continue to encourage young girls into STEM careers, as well as create more supportive networks. Indeed, there needs to be a clear strategy in place that highlights the contributions engineering makes to our lives and the economy – one that encourages the diversity of talent. By providing sufficient courses throughout this vital period in their early lives, that explain how fulfilling, interesting and accessible this profession can be, young women can be encouraged to pursue a lifelong career – a career that will have a positive impact on all our futures.
How STEM is set to change the future
Research in engineering and specific digital technologies is a rewarding and thriving sector to get into. Yet, there are many misconceptions of what it is that engineers necessarily do. Too often, people assume these individuals operate in a world filled with dark labs, lab coats and bent over workstations day-in and day-out. The truth is, there so much more than that.
Engineers and researchers are creative and essentially solve real world problems. While it is rare for working professionals to see the direct impact of their work on society, for engineers, this is commonplace. STEM work and research projects touch every aspect of human life. Consider those individuals working in energy, and how they are leading solutions on environmental sustainability and driving the economy. These individuals are working for the benefit of society and humanity.
For example, engineers have been responsible for building the some of the most complex and intricate systems that provide society’s infrastructure and make modern life possible. Even now, recent innovations – such as smart sensors and internet of things (IoT) – will enable the future smart city, as more data will be collected than ever before, streamlining city administration, easing traffic congestion and enabling better management of energy and resources.
Ultimately, engineers will continue to shape the UK’s future and play an influential role in its economy. Whilst the government is keen to encourage young future talent, the diversity gap is still yet to be addressed.
Professor Dimitra Simeonidou, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, IEEE Fellow, Director of Smart Internet Lab and Co-Director of the Institute of Digital Futures at Bristol University.