We set up Sagent last year with the aim to promote women in engineering. Female engineers are the most underrepresented group in the workforce, with only 7% of all engineers being female.
It has been an interesting journey so far. We spent the first half of the year focusing on the challenges that female engineers face, speaking to engineers to understand these better. We did a lot of research on unconscious bias and stereotype threat, and refined our coaching practice to focus on women in technical careers. We heard some great stories, met some amazing role models, and felt really positive about the collaborative spirit amongst women in engineering.
We heard some sad stories as well. We worked with women who still experience overt sexism in the workplace, women who have to fight to get the same salary as their male peers, and some very talented female engineers who are considering leaving the profession because they “have had enough”.
All those experiences form the basis of the work that we do with companies. In the second half of the year, we officially launched our consultancy services to organisations who wish to increase the diversity of their engineering workforce, and improve their gender balance. The reactions have been interesting. Without any proactive marketing efforts, we have been approached by companies who want to understand more about the impact of unconscious bias in the recruitment process, about how stereotype threat can really impact performance, about the decline in confidence that female engineers experience due to the negative perceptions about their ability.
Some companies really stand out in the work that they have done. Rolls Royce, Arup, Atkins, BAE are a few of the household names that have worked very hard to attract more women at all levels, from apprentices and graduates to experienced hires in management positions.
Most companies – and the government – now understand the business imperative for more diversity. We have a real shortage of engineers in the UK. Estimates from the Engineering Council claim that by 2020, we will need an additional 1.8 million people with engineering skills, yet we are currently only producing a fraction of that number in our universities and apprenticeship schemes. By excluding half of the population, we will most definitely not fill that gap. Women are just as competent as men, yet are prevented from contributing to the innovations of our times. From an economic perspective, that just doesn’t make sense.
Unfortunately there are still voices out there who question women’s ability in the sciences. Despite the fact that girls gain better A level results than boys, that girls now take almost half of the A levels in maths, that women outperform men in science degrees such as medicine, we still have to read headlines about the latest scientific research proving the differences in male and female brains. Invariably, research like this points to the supposed superiority of men and science.
We have also had some interesting experiences once we starting talking to companies about our work. “We don’t have time for diversity, we are short staffed as it is”, was the response given to me by the head of talent from a well known technology start up. “Interesting, can’t see why anyone would bother.” was the response from the head of recruitment at a government sponsored innovation centre.
Whilst I understand that small firms might not have the luxury to discuss diversity and gender balance at length within their organisations, addressing these issues is a business imperative, especially if you are short staffed and struggling to attract enough talent. These companies might not be aware, but by refusing to acknowledge the challenges that women in engineering face, they alienate women and increasingly men, who want to work in a more balanced environment. Not to mention that more and more the public no longer accepts to be sold products that are created and made by men only.
Innovation is something that impacts all of our lives, regardless of our gender. Another reason why we will continue to campaign for a greater gender balance in engineering is because it is simply the right thing to do!
We hope to continue working with many more engineering organisations in 2014. We also appeal to the government to set the example and proactively work towards a gender balanced environment in all government sponsored innovation and engineering initiatives. We appeal to the media to give a more balanced view on research regarding gender differences. There is plenty of existing and new research out there that shows that male and female brains aren’t so different after all.
In short, we are looking forward to 2014!