Gender neutrality is the way forward in engineering
Women Engineers The engineering sector has to change its image to solve its skills shortage and appeal to more women. It can start by being more open about the range of opportunities it offers.
Diversity is an issue that's not yet engrained in the engineering sector, admits Aidan Joy, Head of Manufacturing (Space) at aerospace manufacturer, Airbus. But it needs to be, and quickly, if the industry is to a) thrive and b) properly reflect the society it serves.
“The solutions we develop as engineers are complex,” he says. “A company which employs a diverse team, gets the advantage of diverse views and backgrounds, with the result of improved productivity and a better workplace. Otherwise it will end up with a stove-piped view of its aims going forward — and that isn't the way to succeed in today's world.”
"Employ a diverse team, and you'll get the advantage of diverse views and backgrounds."
At present, the UK engineering industry is suffering from a drastic skills shortage: it needs to recruit around 225,000 engineers every year to meet sector growth. Bluntly, however, this isn't a male/female problem: it's a business one. And if it isn't solved, Joy believes the industry — and the UK economy — could suffer as a result. “Demand in the sector is rising,” he says, pointing out that new digital innovations such as the Internet of Things are creating a need for a diverse range of engineering skills. “But if we don't take advantage of the opportunities out there, then other countries will. And if we ignore the issue of diversity, we'll be excluding 50 per cent of our available talent pool.”
The changing face of engineering
Nevertheless, says Karen Thomas, Head of HR in the UK at Airbus Defence and Space, it's important for companies to find the right person for the job, whether they are male or female. “I'm never going to look at job opening and think: 'I need to find a woman for that',” she says. “I want the best person for the role, while still being mindful that there has to be a gender balance within the workforce. It’s important that women who do well in the workplace are not seen as doing well because they're women — but rather because they're very capable people who can do the job,” she says. Gender neutrality is the way forward.
“However, I'm never going to look at job opening and think: 'I need to find a woman for that'"
Thomas also believes the sector needs to undergo a significant change of perception if it's to attract more women to its ranks. “Even though we work in a fantastic industry, I think it suffers from the perception of traditionalism, which is off-putting for some women,” she says. Companies can help by, for example, offering flexible working — for all staff — and supporting women if they take a career break. They should also be at pains to highlight that women can succeed in a male-dominated industry. At Airbus, for example, 25 per cent of the board is female (a Credit Suisse report put the global average at 14.7% at year end 2015); while the aim is to increase women in the workforce to 30 per cent.
Range of opportunities in the sector
The industry also has to do more to connect with school-age children. “We have to make engineering cool,” says Joy, who agrees with Thomas that it suffers from a perception problem. “I was talking to one of our female engineers recently who made an interesting point that I hadn't considered before. She said that in France, Germany and Spain, the name for an engineer is 'ingenieur' — which is a derivative of 'ingenuity'. Whereas in the UK, 'engineer' is derived from the word 'engines', which conjures up a vision of greasy spanners.”
"The terminology 'engineer' conjures up a vision of greasy engines and spanners.”
And that's a misconception, because 'engineering' is the catch-all name for an industry that includes a vast range of jobs, says Joy. At the moment, a lot of the demand is in the hi-tech solutions side of the sector in jobs that tackle global issues such as cyber security. “The part of the business in which I sit features engineers working in teams on system design and system architecture,” says Thomas. “If the perception of our industry doesn't change, it's going to impact on the supply of skills that we need for the future.”
The benefit of work experience
Whether you're male or female, the attributes you need to succeed in engineering are an inquisitive nature and bags of enthusiasm, says Joy. “We need people who are creative and team players, but also people who can be solo entrepreneurs. Think about your best route into the industry — and I would advise anyone to get work experience with internships or placements, etc.”
“Nothing gives me greater pleasure than when someone writes in asking about work experience opportunities because they have a passion for our industry,” agrees Thomas. “I can think of individuals we have helped who are now permanent employees. These are people who have knocked on our door to say: 'Let me in so I can experience what it is you're doing.'”
Airbus is a global leader in aerospace, defence and related services with more than 138,600 employees worldwide; they deliver approximately half of all commercial airliner orders.
It is the second largest space company in the world and top 10 defence company which provides tanker, combat, transport and mission aircraft as well as space systems, equipment and services.