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Comment - Engineering can encourage women into stem careers

Technology companies need to apply what they are good at to their women’s initiatives, says Ines Wichert

Evidence that the UK needs many more engineers, and that engineering companies need to recruit many more women, is well documented.

According to Engineering UK’s 2013 report, in the ten years between 2010 and 2020 businesses in the sector will have 2.74 million unfilled roles across a range of disciplines. The report also highlights the fact that over 90 per cent of women rule out a career in science, engineering or technology at the age of 14 by not choosing to study triple science. Of those who do, and who go on to study a STEM subject at university, a much smaller proportion (51 per cent) join an engineering or technology company compared with 68 per cent of their male counterparts.

Another problem is that many engineering jobs are front-line roles in industrial environments that still tend to be male dominated. Like any operational role, these often afford less flexibility and require travel. The less planned nature of such jobs has been cited as a reason that women may not choose them.

Research at the Kenexa High Performance Institute, an IBM company that provides business solutions for human resources to more than 4,400 companies around the world, suggests that adopting three guiding principles can help organisations make a significant difference to attracting, retaining and progressing women.

First is science. It’s important to look beyond anecdotal evidence and develop a clear understanding of the barriers to women’s career progression. Few HR-related initiatives are well evaluated, and simply assuming that something will work because everyone else is doing it is far from the best strategy.

A good example is mentoring. We often hear business leaders talk about the role that their mentors played. However, research shows less support for mentoring as a way of sharing advice, debriefing difficult situations and providing encouragement. While this type of mentoring makes us feel good, it is not strongly associated with getting a promotion. 

Although evidence exists for the importance of women in high-visibility roles, far fewer organisations are spending time reviewing their project staffing procedures than are setting up mentoring schemes.

The second principle is the need to focus on data-driven solutions. While research provides insights into commonly applicable barriers and accelerators for women, it cannot replace good quality local data. Knowing why an organisation’s pipeline of female talent is leaking and establishing where these leaks occur is an important starting point. The more demographic information we have, the more granular we can become in pinpointing problems.

Women are not an homogenous group and different career phases bring different challenges, as does the opportunity to work in different roles, departments and countries. Data should be collected from both women and men. Frequently, the most insightful findings emerge when responses to career-related questions are compared.

Third and last is better execution. There are many types of high-profile gender diversity initiatives and the behind the scenes work is as important as the programme itself. An initiative stands little chance of delivering meaningful results unless it meets some core requirements. Is there a clear understanding of how many people will be reached? Is the project creating genuine career opportunities? A training programme that assigns you to a mentor and a commitment to development is more effective than a standalone one.

Just as important is on-going evaluation. Without regular reporting on progress the initial enthusiasm is unlikely to be maintained.

If it’s going to significantly increase the number of women in technical roles, the engineering sector needs to apply what it’s good at - science, data and exceptional execution.

Dr Ines Wichert is a senior psychologist at the Kenexa High Performance Institute (www.kenexa.com). She has a special interest in talent management and female leadership development, and leads KHPI’s Women in Leadership research stream.

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