How can the gender balance in engineering be improved?

Women make up just six percent of the workforce in engineering.

Despite a raft of initiatives, there still aren’t enough women entering the engineering profession. Charlie Weatherhogg, HR director of infrastructure firm AECOM, considers what can be done.

Engineers are renowned for their innovation and problem-solving skills. Yet, there is one problem the industry still has not cracked: how can it attract and retain female engineers?

During the First World War, the UK relied on women to take up jobs in engineering and medicine and, 100 years on, the ratio of men and women in medicine is pretty equal.

In engineering, however, women make up just 6% of the workforce.

At infrastructure services firm AECOM, one-third of our graduates are female – which is high for the industry.

However, the low number of women entering the profession continues to be a big problem for HR departments in technical industries, which recruit mainly from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) backgrounds.

Positive action

AECOM’s recent analysis found a direct correlation between the number of women entering the profession and the low number of female students choosing STEM subjects at A-Level.

Additionally, it found that, while female students’ performance in STEM subjects has outstripped that of their male counterparts at GCSE level in recent years, this has not translated into a proportionate increase in girls choosing to pursue STEM subjects at A-level.

As an industry, we need to do more to make STEM subjects and technical professions more attractive to young women. This requires positive action – not positive discrimination – to ensure a level playing field.

So why does the industry need to hire more female engineers? First, because it’s the right thing to do – why should women be denied the many exciting opportunities the profession can provide?

Second, there are fewer people – both men and women – entering the profession in general. At the same time, the workforce is ageing, with many experienced engineers now approaching retirement.

In any case, the more mixed a team – whether in terms of gender, age or background – the better it is at coming up with innovative solutions. From an HR perspective, a diverse and inclusive culture creates a wider talent pool from which to select.

Engaging the next generation

Part of the problem is that many girls – as well as boys – have not had their eyes opened to the diverse opportunities that a career in engineering can offer.

You could be working in the office one day and on site the next, designing bridges, ports and railways, or even the iconic skyscrapers of the future.

Engineers working at AECOM have worked on some of the nation’s highest profile engineering projects, ranging from the London Olympic Park to The Shard, Crossrail and HS2.

To evoke interest from a young age, AECOM regularly visits schools – including primary – to tell children (especially female students) about careers in engineering and other technical disciplines, so they are open to these exciting opportunities.

The breadth and impact of work that we lead has the potential to engage and inspire anyone and everyone. That is why it is important to take the profession to young people long before university, to help dispel the myth that it is a male-only environment.

While more of this needs to happen in a coordinated manner across the industry, greater collaboration between businesses and schools is also required.

I’m hoping the Government’s new, employer-led careers advice body can help achieve this.

Ongoing support

Supporting women already working in the industry is just as important as attracting future talent. I believe mentoring plays a key role in the sustained drive for greater diversity.

We have addressed this by launching mCircles, a mentoring scheme for female employees in the UK that we are expanding globally.

It involves women in leadership positions across the business mentoring their female colleagues, covering various career stages and specific areas where female employees have said they would like additional support.

Inclusive recruitment

When it comes to hiring, it is crucial to focus on ensuring that women are included at the key selection decision points.

At AECOM, we aim to increase this male/female ratio further; our goal is to have women represented in the selection shortlist for at least 75% of key hire positions.

As well as influencing the recruitment process, HR leaders can also educate employees so they understand that everyone has different forms of prejudiced thinking.

Greater awareness is an important means to mitigating the potentially negative impacts of biased thinking, especially as so much of this is unconscious.

There are no easy answers and, as an industry, we have a long way to go.

This is why HR departments require creative and lateral thinking to find ways to show women that engineering companies are an attractive and inclusive place to work.

Charlie Weatherhogg

About Charlie Weatherhogg

Charlie Weatherhogg is HR Director, UK & Ireland, Continental Europe and Africa, at AECOM.
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