I’m at the start of my career and full of hope about my future, so why don’t more girls and women see engineering as an option for them?
Only 14.4% of people working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the UK are women, but gender diversity is an issue before we even reach employment. The issue really starts at university and at school. To overcome this challenge, I believe we need a two-pronged attack to ensure enough women are studying engineering to begin with, and then stay on to reach the highest levels of the profession, should they aspire to do so.
So why so few women? In my experience the way we market ourselves plays a huge part. In civil engineering we have a tendency to only show construction sites in marketing materials, even though many of us spend most of our week in an office. I definitely enjoy watching my designs being constructed, but that doesn’t reflect reality, or mean I want to be on a construction site every day.
We need to move away from the images of labour on site and emphasise the work completed by engineers to solve global problems like providing clean water and vital infrastructure.
We just need that spark, that one thing that will make them look into engineering further
We also need to spend more time updating the views of those that have the greatest influence on young people – teachers and parents. There is already some great work being done to show pupils the range of opportunities presented by engineering. At WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff for instance, we have the “Launchpad‟ programme, which provides one to two week work placements for local pupils, aged between 14-19 years old, to inspire and encourage them to join the ranks of the nation’s problem-solvers.
I also believe that when looking at attracting a more diverse range of young people into our industry, we shouldn’t just be telling them how good civil, or any single engineering discipline is, we should tell them how great engineering is full stop. We just need that spark, that one thing that will make them look into engineering further.
The other problem is that at the higher ranks of the profession there simply isn’t a big enough pool of engineers to draw from. However, as a graduate I can see that there’s more of us entering the profession (some grad roles at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff are close to 50/50 split), so if we can find a way to retain this new pool of talent we should see more women at the upper levels. Of course, some women will choose take some time off from their careers to have children and taking maternity leave or a career break should not limit a woman’s potential. Women need support so they can pick up their career where they left off.
In terms of my aspirations for the future, I certainly don’t think being a woman will hold me back in my career aspirations. However, I definitely welcome unconscious bias training to help ensure female employees, and anyone from a minority group, are not at a disadvantage. In my opinion this is a much better way to go than introducing quotas that encourage positive discrimination. At the end of the day, surely we want to remove discrimination in all its forms.
Patricia Molina Benitez is a graduate engineer in the highways and bridges team at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff and wrote this blog to mark National Women in Engineering Day