Women in Engineering Day: why diversity is a 2021 challenge, not a future one

3 min read

By Dr Sarah Peers MIET MINCOSE FRSA FIKE, Associate Professor, NMITE

Here we go again, yet another Women in Engineering Day. Why? And how is this relevant to manufacturing? After all, gender diversity in UK manufacturing seems not too bad: women make up 29% of the manufacturing workforce (Make UK, 2021). And there ARE women in leadership in manufacturing: 18% of board members are women. This seems to compare well against other engineering and construction sectors where c.12-14% engineering and professional roles are filled by women. And there is the rub: Make UK explains the 29% are NOT all engineers. Most women in manufacturing are operatives and in administration; the proportion of manufacturing engineering professionals who are women is still low at 8% and even worse for manufacturing apprentices at only 4%.

There is an undisputed business for greater diversity in manufacturing. The lack of women across all STEM related sectors in the UK, not just manufacturing, is a concern. McKinsey calculated in 2016 that bridging the UK gender gap would add £150 billion to GDP by 2025. Manufacturers need to understand the end-user of their products, the consumer. 50% of the population are women: the workforce in any sector should reflect this, particularly in a sector that is increasingly reliant on innovation. As Rocio Lorenzo puts it in her TED talk on innovation and business revenue: “no ifs, no buts – diverse companies are more innovative, innovative companies are more diverse”. Other studies of company performance and inclusion have confirmed this and have highlighted the need to have better representation of women across an organization, from entry level to mid-management and in leadership. The challenge reaches beyond tokenism: targets of 20% of women at all levels; boards with 30% women. Women are the tip of the “diversity iceberg”: if we cannot see 50% of the population in our workshops, our offices, on our board, who are else are we missing?

Closer to home, what can manufacturers in the UK do? First, follow the example of companies and other sectors where there have been some successes. For example, SAP, the software services company well known to many manufacturers, set a goal in 2011 to increase their 19% of women in leadership. By being creative and setting measurable targets they considered new pools of talent and new ways of developing leaders. Cummins also set targets to drive up their technical gender diversity by challenging their regional groups to find new ways of getting better gender balanced recruitment. They challenged their own internal biases and recruited from outside the traditional engineering degrees. Manufacturers must first set themselves the challenge of increasing their workforce diversity.

Many companies focus their gender diversity programmes on outreach at schools as a way of increasing diversity at entry level. A 2019 Engineering UK survey showed that 94% of 16-19 year-old girls already agree that engineering is for both men and women, but their pathways are already set. What is a little more worrying is that the same survey shows only 81% of boys agreeing that engineering is also for girls. There is gap, and some of those boys in that gap will soon be those girls’ colleagues and engineers. So yes, also work with education but look to speak to all, not just the girls.

The next step then needs to be about addressing biases and prejudices of colleagues and managers. Diversity and inclusion must be embedded in company culture and not just a shiny strapline on a website. This might then impact on the number of women who leave engineering. Although the number of women engineering students has remained at 18-20% since the early ‘00s, these students have not stayed in the sector. As three women engineers asked me at the end of an excellent “engineering for girls” event, where they had enthused about STEM to the schoolgirls, “why should we stay when our manager tells us that we are not really engineers?” Between them, this group had achieved a first class engineering degree, a PhD and a masters, and their large global corporate employer has won awards for its equality and diversity policies.

Employers can also work with universities and colleges to impact on perceptions and drive the agenda for more diversity and innovation as part of engineering training. The New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering (NMITE) seeks companies to join us in bringing engineering education up to date. NMITE seeks to create an inclusive culture where diversity is recognised and valued. Our model of learning has at its heart team-based problem-solving where collaboration is not just a nice-to-have, but central to learning. We know that collaborative working is particularly attractive to young women and key to better leadership. We are fostering an ethos of shared learning spaces, actively using inclusive language, and developing inclusive content. One aspect of driving inclusive content is our use of “challenges”: most are from industry so real problems. There are specific community-based challenges addressing social needs; this is also relevant to attracting a different sort of student. We are challenging ourselves to deliver a curriculum that mainstreams gender and addresses the needs for the future of engineering and technology in the UK. NMITE aims to welcome diverse people for different, creative, innovative engineering. And that includes women too. Happy Women in Engineering Day!