Women in STEM: Breaking the Glass Ceiling?

Since their inception, the engineering and technology industries have been predominantly male-dominated professions, and it seems that because of this, females have, in-turn, been put off stepping onto the STEM career ladder. As the sector moves forward into the future, attracting women into the profession is becoming a significant issue and if something doesn’t change, the industry risks missing out on top female talent.

The status quo of ‘STEM = men’ has been left relatively unchallenged for quite some time, but recently there have been movements within the industry to try and overcome a perceived stigma of women in engineering or tech roles. With this in mind, we look at why the industry has been so stubbornly male-dominated and review some of the influences that are driving change.

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of all engineering and technology graduates in Britain are female

Lack of encouragement

Currently, just 22% of engineering and technology undergraduates in Britain are female. Just how low that figure is becomes apparent when one looks at a country like India, where it is over the 30% mark. Indeed, across a recent study by the Royal College of Engineering of engineering graduates across 99 countries, the UK ranked just 58th for gender parity. This lack of female graduates then flows into the workforce, where the UK currently holds the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe (9%).

Perhaps the most obvious reason for the current situation revolves around self-perpetuating stereotypes. With the engineering and technology industries being male-driven since their beginnings, we have reinforced stereotypes in our culture that suggest girls won’t be interested in these areas and therefore we don’t encourage them.

Equally important to address are the lack of role models for young girls to look up to. Historically, there are some incredible female technology and engineering pioneers. Sarah Guppy, who designed Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol and contributed heavily to Britain’s infrastructure and Ada Lovelace, who was arguably the first programmer, spring to mind. However, when one looks for more modern female role models, the cupboard is quite bare.

Norma Jean Mattei is a notable name in the modern engineering world, as she became the president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 2016, soon to become only the third ever female president this year. Emily Cummins is another noteworthy female engineer making a huge difference in sustainable innovation. Yet still, women like these aren't making it into public consciousness in the UK and other western nations, and are unable to really influence girls thinking as they consider their career options. The old adage “you cannot be what you cannot see” comes to mind.

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Male-dominated exclusion

Overcoming the 'broculture’ that has arguably become endemic within the tech and engineering professions will be a big step in attracting women into these professions. In a survey taken by Catalyst that questioned nearly 6,000 M.B.A. graduates working at companies around the world between 2007 and 2014, it showed that nearly three quarters of the women said they felt like ‘outsiders’ in the industry.

A study by TechNation found that just 9% of investment into British tech start-ups in 2016 went to businesses with a female founder.

The issue is not a UK-centric one. For the past two decades, 20% of engineering graduates in the US have been women, yet only 11% of practicing engineers are female. In comparison with other skilled professions, such as accounting, medicine and law, it’s been found that engineering has the highest turnover of women.

These statistics indicate that even if a woman embarks on a career in engineering or technology, there is a very high likelihood she will leave the profession prematurely. A male-dominated culture clearly plays a significant role in this.

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Chinese Companies on list of Fortune Global 500 Companies in 2016

Inherent sexism

The recent onslaught of high profile sexual harassment and discrimination legal cases dominating the engineering and technology sectors also points to a workplace culture of inherent sexism.

Women are now coming forward shining a light on the high levels of sexism and discrimination they have experienced for years in the workplace from their male colleagues. Their testimonies reveal issues that have gone unchallenged for years. The fact they have decided to speak up now, may point to the beginning of a shift in attitude across the industries.

The case of 500 Startups Co-Founder, Dave McClure, stepping down from his executive position and delivering a public apology for his harassment and sexist and discriminatory treatment of his female colleagues, suggests a change in attitude across the industry.

However, a recent lawsuit brought by engineer AJ Vandermeyden against her employers at Tesla, indicates there is still a long way to go. Vandermeyden spoke out about the gender discrimination she has experienced working for Tesla in a lawsuit filed this year. Her bosses responded by refusing to accept her evidence and she was fired in June.

36.69%
more women are applying for digital courses than men in India

40%
of engineers in China are female

Is change on the horizon?

Whilst many Western nations are struggling to attract women into the engineering and tech industries, things are starting to change.

Coordinator for Equality and Diversity for the School of Informatics at Edinburgh University, Dr. Kami Vaniea, says that more women are entering computer science now because more people in general are appreciating the potential of STEM careers. “As a growing number of people understand what computer science covers, we see more women entering the field. Computers involve everything from healthcare all the way up to space exploration.”

Across the globe, some Universities are experiencing even greater shifts in attitude. A survey by the Emeritus Institute of Management found that in India, the proportion of women opting for digital courses is about 36.69% more than men now.

China is also further along than most countries when it comes to accepting females into the tech and engineering professions. Women have been in positions of power throughout the tech boom that has been raging in the country for the last few years. It has also been found that 40% of engineers in China are female.

In addition, the Chinese government estimates that women make up 55% of new Internet companies and that more than a quarter of all entrepreneurs are women. Clearly sexism and discrimination still exist within the Chinese tech and engineering industries; however, it is also evident that China has quietly become one of the best places in the world for women embarking on STEM careers.

In the UK, with the figures for gender equality in the science and engineering industries struggling in comparison with other countries, it’s a positive sign to see companies like Amazon have begun initiatives to encourage women into this area of work.

Their initiative, the Women in Innovation bursary, was set up to offer funding of up to £30,000 per year for one female student to take up a degree relating to high-tech innovation at one of three top UK universities.

Another forward thinking engineering giant, General Electric, in the U.S, is implementing strategies to encourage women to join their workforce. They have publically stated their ambitious aim to make their workforce 50/50 male and female by 2020. Their reasoning for this is simple. They believe that businesses with a more balanced gender ratio are more successful.

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Estimated engineering contribution to UK GDP

The future

Clearly change is on the horizon, if not already here; but, it will take time for shifts in attitude to filter down to the workplace. However, it is important that they do. A recent McKinsey report stated that enabling gender equality across society, including in the workplace, could add as much as $11 trillion to annual global GDP by 2025. In the UK, engineering accounts for about 27% of UK GDP. If McKinsey's report is even remotely accurate, improving gender-parity across the sector will benefit the nation as a whole long into the future.

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