Report on women in engineering highlights urgent need for culture change

Women in STEM


Just under half leave after completing an engineering degree and two thirds of women leave engineering careers after having children, according to a new report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers which says women in the profession still face unacceptable behaviour and unequal treatment.

The study, ‘Stay or go? The experience of female engineers in early career’, found that 63% of the women in engineering surveyed experienced unacceptable behaviour or comments, which the IME says is as much as three times more than women in financial or medical professions. Some 40% of female engineers said they were not treated equally and 60% said it was easier for men to progress in their careers.  Around two thirds felt they needed to adapt their personalities and ‘toughen up’ to get by.

The report reveals that the problem of unequal treatment is an issue from early on in training, with almost half of female engineers experiencing differential treatment at some stage before graduation either as a student or while on work experience and 75% being aware of being treated differently by the end of the first year at work.

Silvia Boschetto, Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and one of the contributors to the report, said: “As part of our study, we heard of incidents of male colleagues saying things, such as, ‘what would you know about this, you’re a woman,’ or ‘I can’t criticise her work because she’ll just cry.’ The study also revealed numerous incidents at meetings where male colleagues would assume that a woman must have an administrative role rather than being a professional with technical expertise.

“Women are often placed in an impossible position of either being accused of lacking a sense of humour or pretending they were not offended. It is time for employers and education providers to ensure this stops.”

The report makes five key recommendations, including the adoption of agreed quality benchmarks for retaining female engineers in early-to-mid career, learning from best practice about how the most-effective companies address career ‘flashpoints’, such as return to work after maternity leave, through implementing strategies that work both for female employees and the employer and the introduction of an annual in confidence consultation on the fairness of staff recognition, reward, professional support and work social activity. It also says that the academic engineering community should carry out a UK-wide study to characterise the experience of being a university engineering undergraduate and that all higher education institutions should be encouraged to participate in the Athena SWAN charter which addresses all aspects of equality and diversity.

The study is based on a survey of 500 women in the first 10 years of their career in engineering, medicine and finance.

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