The failure of British engineering companies to increase the proportion of women they employ above 10% is a source of embarrassment, one of the profession’s leading figures has said.
Hayaatun Sillem, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said the gender imbalance was particularly frustrating given the significant progress made by other countries and in professions like law and medicine.
“I feel almost ashamed that I have to go there and talk about the statistics that we have on women in engineering after decades of effort,” she said.
“Engineers have a huge role in designing the infrastructure of the world around us and designing algorithms embedded in the world around us. It cannot be healthy that they don’t reflect the broader society that those algorithms and that infrastructure serves.”
Britain’s record on employing female engineers remains the worst in Europe, with Latvia, Cyprus and Bulgaria, where about 30% of the engineering workforce are women, and Sweden (26%) and Italy (20%) all having far better records.
While other countries have moved on from the “white man in a hard-hat” engineering stereotype, Sillem said, in Britain the profession’s image remains “incredibly highly gendered”. “We’re at the extreme end of the spectrum,” she said, adding that this has made it hard to attract people who could not envisage themselves working on industrial-scale construction projects.
In reality, she said, the profession contributes to medical technologies, artificial intelligence and building efforts in the developing world. The academy is coordinating an industry-wide effort at communicating this to school pupils.
Less than 10% of professional engineers are women in Britain. The figure is only about 15% for engineering students, exacerbating a huge shortfall in the number of engineers needed by industry.
A recent report by Engineering UK suggests the country has a demand for about 124,000 engineers each year, but the actual number being appointed is 37,000-59,000 lower than this.
Sillem, who was appointed in January, said that in some parts of industry, old-boy networks or macho work cultures may be contributing to a lack of diversity. “We’ve had some interesting insights into the culture at some of the big tech companies,” she said. “I don’t think it’s rational to decouple that from the lack of diversity … there’s highly likely to be a connection.”
Sillem said it was encouraging that fewer people today make the argument that there are so few women in engineering because girls have less interest or ability in the subject. “There’s a growing body of evidence that debunks that myth,” she said, pointing out that in countries like Malaysia and Oman the engineering workforce is 50% female. “The evidence just does not support the idea that there’s something inherent.”