The Skills Shortage and Women in Engineering

“The Civil Engineering industry is facing an enormous skills shortage. It is estimated that UK companies will need 1.82 million people with engineering skills by 2022 [Engineering UK 2015: The State of Engineering, EngineeringUK, 2015] and it has become more necessary than ever to inspire people to work in the industry. When I am asked if encouraging women into engineering could help to reduce the skills shortage, the answer is undoubtedly yes; to exclude 50% of our population significantly reduces the pool of potential candidates.

This leaves us asking ‘why is the current number of women in engineering so low?’ and ‘what can the industry do to encourage women into engineering?’
We’ve come a long way from the sexism of days gone by. Women are far more welcome within male-dominated industries than ever before and cases of overt sexism seem to be few and far between.

However, despite the sociological progress of recent years, unconscious bias persists. On more than one occasion people have assumed that I am a PA at a meeting, before then speculating over the nature of my role; Engineer seeming to be the least probable option. On another occasion, I arrived on-site wearing my company jacket, to be told that it was closed to the public. These situations, examples of many, illustrate the way in which people still make immediate assumptions based on gender and such bias can be heavily embedded in workplace cultures.

The industry must begin by challenging workplace cultures to create a better working environment for everyone. Opposing all forms of discrimination, unconscious or otherwise, is necessary for the movement towards equality. It’s of paramount importance therefore, to encourage individuals to make a conscious effort to unravel these biases: being able to discuss these issues means that they can be confronted. Having an open forum for current business leaders to talk openly with employees about gender issues and why they matter would be a huge step forward. Furthermore, creating the administrative avenues for women to be able to confront workplace discrimination when necessary is what allows women to work with confidence. Even small allowances, such as always having a female toilet available onsite, make a significant impact on the naturalisation of women’s existence within engineering.

Such bias does not emerge only as people are joining the workforce; it is ingrained in our society. Females are directed into certain roles and behaviors due to their gender and the stereotypes surrounding it. This forms one of the reasons for such low numbers within the industry. I recognise that having positive role models can combat these assumptions and encourage females into industries such as engineering; I have been lucky to have a supportive mother who provided me with a strong role-model and never allowed be to believe I was unable to do something on the merit that I was female.

It is therefore important not only that the role models currently within the industry are visible but also that there are women in leadership’s roles to aspire to. There is a current lack of female in leadership roles within the industry, which cannot simply be attributed to the low number of females as lower percentages will progress into leadership roles.
Constantly faced with a requirement to prove their professional competence before engaging in tasks that foster development, females often lag behind their male counterparts, causing them to be passed up for important opportunities. In addition seemingly innocuous leadership criteria, reflecting the predominant industry demographic, can discourage women’s promotion chances.

Furthermore, women displaying positive confident characteristics required of a leader are far more likely than males to have these viewed negatively; being called words like bossy, abrasive, and aggressive or emotional and irrational when they object. For those who do attain leadership roles, many have had to work twice as hard to achieve the same results and over time this disparity can cause females to leave the industry for careers where they are more likely to excel.

Tackling unconscious bias will over time result in an increase of females in leadership roles, but arguably we cannot wait that long. So what else can be done? One of the most important, yet simple solutions, is for companies, especially key decision-makers, to be aware of the intricate social dynamics that result in the assumption that women are personal assistants, not engineers; that men are more likely to ask for a promotion; that women have to show higher standards before a promotion. For once they are aware of such issues, they can account for them when making important decisions that should be based on each given candidates merit, experience and expertise. In addition companies need to facilitate the advancement of female engineers to give them the opportunity to develop into business leaders and positive role models. Mentoring systems outside of usual management functions are incredibly valuable in the development of women engineers as business leaders, so firms must ensure that all of their engineers have the same level of access to such systems. This would go some way to address the balance; informal mentoring often given by male business leaders who see themselves reflected in the young men embarking on the early stages of their careers, offers young male engineers a significant competitive advantage over their female counterparts.

In the main my experience with Osborne has been positive, with many supportive colleagues and I hope that the looming skills shortage finally results in action so that small pockets of good practice become the norm.

Diversity in all its forms is important and many of the issues facing women are also relevant other minorities within the industry. If we are able to address these issues hopefully it can be used as a springboard to tackle other challenges.”

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Safia Whitwham is an Assistant Site Manager at Osborne.