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Would quotas bring more women into engineering?

With the percentage of women in engineering still hovering below 10 per cent after decades of advocacy, is it time to try more drastic measures?

One of the most memorable statements attributed to Albert Einstein is the oft-quoted “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. This is how the IET’s first female president, Naomi Climer, describes the engineering industry’s approach to tackling the glaring gender disparity in its workforce.“I have been an engineer for 30 years and when I joined I just assumed the percentage of women in engineering would naturally grow over time and the problem would fix itself organically,” she says. “The reality is that 30 years later it’s barely shifted.”

The IET’s 2015 skills survey shows that the proportion of women in the industry climbed from 7 to 9 per cent in the UK since last year. But the surveyors say the result is not statistically significant: since the IET began measuring it in 2007 the figure has fluctuated between 5 and 9 per cent without showing any concrete upwards trajectory.

Engineering is not the only industry suffering from a lack of women; the problem is mirrored in the majority of STEM (science, engineering, technology and manufacturing) disciplines. The WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) Campaign set up in 1984 has seen progress in areas like medicine, but its research shows that in more than a quarter of a century the proportion of female professional engineers has risen from 3 to just over 8 per cent.

Faced with such glacial change, in her first full week as IET President, Naomi Climer suggested it may be time to adopt a more radical approach. “Despite the best efforts, there has been little progress in attracting more women into engineering over the past few decades so I feel that the time is right to force action through the use of quotas,” she said in a statement on 6 October 2015.

The solution is a controversial one, but it is increasingly being employed by European countries to boost the number of women in boardrooms. The EU is currently negotiating a directive that would impose a mandatory 40 per cent quota for non-executive directors by 2020 (2018 for public undertakings) which would apply to roughly 5,000 companies across the bloc, though not SMEs.

Speaking to E&T several weeks after her initial comments, Climer has softened her stance. “Quotas are really a last resort,” she says. “They’re incredibly unpopular with everybody; even the people who benefit don’t really like them. They’re very divisive, so we have to explore every other avenue before we start using them.” But, she adds, time is running out for alternative approaches. “I’d like people to understand that if we don’t shift people soon we will have to do something more drastic.”

Quotas in practice

The poster child for this approach is Norway, which in 2003 imposed a 40 per cent quota on boards of listed companies. Failure to comply by 2008 theoretically could have led to a company being de-listed, though none ever were. Opposition was vocal, with many claiming the system was anti-meritocratic and would result in under-qualified appointments, and some companies voluntarily de-listed to avoid the requirement. But it achieved its target in 2009 and even former detractors have softened their stance, with the policy generally considered a success.

The directive being discussed by the EU takes a softer line. It would use a ‘procedural’ approach whereby companies faced with equally qualified candidates must prioritise those from the under-represented sex, though sanctions will be left up to member states. Another approach is the one taken by some political parties, to have quotas for candidate shortlists.

So far, the focus has been at board level, working on the assumption that a critical mass of women at the top of companies will have a knock-on effect on future recruitment, while showing women there is a place for them at the top table. But in Norway, most appointments have been to non-executive positions,which are involved in policy decisions but not day-to-day operations. A 2012 report by public? relations firm Burson-?Marsteller on companies listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange found only 8 per cent of board chairs were female, while women made up just 4 per cent of chief executives and 12 per cent of chief financial officers.

A 2014 analysis led by University of Chicago economics professor Marianne Bertrand showed fears of underqualified appointees were unfounded. New female board members were observably more qualified than male predecessors, suggesting the policy helped break up anti-meritocratic ‘old boys’ networks. But despite the gender pay gap narrowing within boards, the study found little evidence of trickledown. There was no statistically significant change in pay gaps or female representation in top positions, though Bertrand admits it may be too early to see the knock-on effect.

A 2008 study by Catalyst, a body promoting more inclusive workplaces, did find evidence for the phenomenon, showing the number of female board directors at a Fortune 500 company in 2001 had a clear positive correlation to the percentage of female corporate officers at the same firm in 2006.

Regardless of whether they are effective though, quotas have little support in the UK. Rolls-Royce, Jaguar Land Rover, Siemens and Arup all failed to respond to a request for comment on the prospect of their introduction, while Network Rail and Airbus both affirmed a commitment to voluntary action without directly commenting on Climer’s suggestion. “We have no quotas for the recruitment of women but targets – no positive discrimination,” an Airbus Group spokeswoman said. “Airbus Group’s recruitment decisions are made solely on the basis of people’s qualifications and abilities, giving equal chances to all, and the recruitment driver has always been skills and competences.” The Government Equalities Office also failed to respond.

EEF, the manufacturing organisation, which represents a host of engineering and manufacturing employers, is clear in its opposition. Senior employment and skills policy adviser Verity O’Keefe says, “Quotas, or a forced solution, are not the answer. Women want to be promoted based on merit, not because of a quota. The focus should be on encouragement not enforcement.”

This year’s WISE Campaign annual conference opens on the 40th anniversary of the Sex Discrimination Act, and campaign director Helen Woolaston says the fact we are still discussing this issue shows that enforcement alone cannot solve the problem. “When you impose legislation I think people find ways round it,” she says. “That’s why the legislation around sex discrimination hasn’t created gender equality.”

What are the alternatives?

Following a landmark review by Lord Davies in 2011, the UK government pressed FTSE 100 companies to meet a voluntary target of 25 per cent female representation on boards by the end of 2015. The target was met earlier this year, more than doubling from 12.5 per cent in 2011 to 26.1 per cent, with no more all-male boards on the FTSE 100. In his final report published at the end of October, Davies suggested a new target of all FTSE 350 boards having 33 per cent female representation by 2020 while reaffirming a commitment to a voluntary approach.

Despite the target being reached though, more than 90 per cent of women on FTSE 100 boards are in non-executive roles, and campaigners have voiced disappointment that the final report did not set a specific target for getting women into executive jobs.

Climer says she would like to try this kind of voluntary approach in engineering before going down the route of quotas, but the issue is getting companies to sign up. “57 per cent of engineering companies don’t have any kind of diversity initiative in place,” she says. “The IET suggests companies should just set themselves a target. It doesn’t have to be mandatory, you don’t have to hit it, just declare one. It’s just helpful setting a goal so you’re working towards something.”

Last September the WISE Campaign unveiled its Ten Steps guidelines in partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering, to help STEM companies boost female representation. The first step urges organisations to set targets for women at senior, board and technical roles, as well as collecting data on their progress. Climer would like to go a step further and require major firms to publish these statistics, as well as make unconscious bias training standard for hiring managers. “I genuinely believe many companies would like to do something about this issue,” she says. “I think this would force them to look a bit harder at what they are doing.”

In July, the Government said it would develop regulations requiring companies with more than 250 employees to publish pay gap data. Last month the proposals were extended to the public sector, while larger employers were told they will have to publish bonus gap data too.

O’Keefe agrees that major firms need to be reporting this data, but warns that the issue is complicated for engineering companies because there are more men in higher-paid technical roles than women. “A lot of people don’t understand the difference between a gender pay gap and unequal pay, and companies can be unfairly targeted,” she says.

A leaky pipeline

While setting targets is a good first step, the WISE Campaign’s Woolaston points out that engineering companies struggle to find female candidates in the first place. “It’s all very well imposing quotas or targets on employers, but if there are not enough women qualified, that in itself won’t solve the problem,” she says.

Fixing the ‘leaky pipeline’ of girls who drop STEM subjects requires a holistic strategy that looks beyond employers, says Woolaston, who would like to see the government back and monitor a national 30 per cent target for engaging women in STEM. “I think targets should be at the outreach level and school level,” she says. “That is where there needs to be a really big push in order to get enough women for employers to recruit.” Approaches such as ensuring STEM-related school and outreach programmes are attended by 50 per cent girls could help, she says, as would linking funds for STEM and infrastructure projects and apprenticeships to diversity. “Incentives are important. People follow the money.”

Responsibility for policy is currently spread across government departments, Woolaston says, with no one responsible for oversight or coordination. The scene is further crowded by a host of professional bodies, non-profits and initiatives such as the Your Life campaign, Tomorrow’s Engineers Week and National Women in Engineering Day. “A lot of them are doing fantastic work, but in a lot of ways they are competing with each other,” says EEF’s O’Keefe. “You really need to have a one-stop shop. There are so many organisations and activities going on that a lot of the time our members don’t know which one to engage with.”

With so many groups sharing responsibility for the problem, it can become easy to pass the buck. “This really feels like the crux of the problem: it isn’t anyone’s responsibility and it needs a collective effort to fix it. Hardly surprising that it hasn’t been cracked yet,” says Climer. Everyone from parents to teachers, to higher education, to employers needs to pull together, she says, and the government needs to provide the incentives so that each plays their part.

This month the IET and the Prospect trade union will release recommendations for STEM employers on how to recruit, promote and retain women. It will include advice on combatting unconscious bias, monitoring recruitment diversity and supporting women returning to work. It will also call for the establishment of an all-party parliamentary group on women working in STEM. But after 30 years of inaction Climer feels the clock is ticking. “I don’t want to be sitting here in another decade wondering why nothing has changed.”

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