Barriers to women in engineering

It is well documented that engineering has a problem with recruiting and retaining women. How can this be changed?

Women In Engineering


According to the Women’s Engineering Society, only 9% of the engineering workforce is female and only 6% of registered engineers and technicians are women. It says the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10%.

A large part of the problem is that fewer women take engineering at university and those who do often end up pursuing careers in other fields. So why is this and what can be done about it?

An article published in the Harvard Business Review this week by Professor Susan S. Sibley of MIT explores the culture within engineering – the shared values, beliefs, and norms – and looks at how that might contribute to the under-representation of women in the profession.

The longitudinal study of 700 engineering students at four US universities found that female students do as well or better than male students, but often point to the “hegemonic masculine culture of engineering” as a reason for leaving.

They found women opted to study engineering for mostly the same reasons as men, although women were more likely to have a more socially conscious reason, such as wanting to make a difference. However, as their course progressed they were more likely to have self doubts and look to others, such as professors or mentors, to re-affirm their confidence, despite doing equally as well as the male students. During group work they experienced sexual stereotyping, mainly by their peers, which had a negative impact on them, for instance, being “relegated to doing routine managerial and secretarial jobs, and of being excluded from the ‘real’ engineering work”. This is then compounded by workplace experience. Professor Sibley writes: “This second round of gender stereotyping in the workplace, coupled with unchallenging projects, blatant sexual harassment, and greater isolation from supportive networks, leads many female students to revisit their ambitions.”

She recommends that engineering programmes need to address gendered tasking and expectations among teams, in class and at internship work sites and states: “The culture has to learn to take women seriously.”

In the UK

There are parallel concerns in the UK about the lack of women in STEM subjects at university and particularly about the lack of women engineers. Recent research from CV-Library is based on a survey of over 500 female engineers in the UK.  Over half (56.5%) felt that engineering was still viewed as a ‘male’ profession while almost three quarters (73.2%) believe that gender discrimination is an issue within the industry.

Almost two thirds (63.3%) of women confessed that they feel they’ve unfairly missed out on job opportunities which have gone to male colleagues instead. CV-Library says: “Whether this is due to unconscious bias from employers in the sector remains to be seen. Another issue is gender stereotypes about engineering which are set in place from a young age and do not suggest it as an option for girls. Several women commented that there simply aren’t enough female role models within the industry. Whether the lack of females in the industry perpetuates the idea that men are better suited to engineering and leads to bias is unclear, but what is evident is that females in the sector feel that they are being unfairly passed over when it comes to career progression.”

The research also reveals that female engineers who do choose to have children often struggle to make it back into the field, with many coming forward to share their stories.

When asked to name the single biggest challenge for women within the sector, many women singled out a lack of flexibility from their employer, with Louisa from Bristol sharing that “having children and working in this sector is still difficult, as there just isn’t enough flexibility”. This appeared to be a common theme, with Rachel from Southampton admitting that being a single mum “prevents travelling and shift work” and others voicing their frustrations over the fact that it’s difficult to find an employer who offers them the chance to work part time or from home when their children are young, suggesting that employers simply aren’t doing enough to help women juggle both a family and a successful career.

Other issues included the fact that taking time out to have children inevitably puts women behind their male colleagues, reducing their already limited opportunities.

CV-Library says: “Ultimately, women can and do make a valuable contribution to the industry and although there are women who do succeed, it’s clear that more must be done to encourage women into the industry and to offer support and flexible working options if they do decide to start a family.

“The reality is that women are still the minority in this sector, and employers must take steps to combat gender discrimination. Supporting female engineers with families could be a key place to start and could help to encourage more young women to enter the field.”

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