Engineering gets an image makeover

Give engineering a new image to attract more women

Image credit: Dreamstime

Engineering has an image problem which is worse for women than men. E&T asked some top London advertising agencies how they would re-brand engineering to attract more women

“She said to me, ‘You’re going to experience something I experience every day: walking into a room completely dominated by the opposite gender’.” That’s how Alex Davern, president and CEO of National Instruments (NI), kicked off the first Women’s Leadership Forum to be held at NI Week in Austin last month. He was quoting Shelley Gretlein, the forum’s organiser and NI’s vice president of corporate marketing.  “I want to see a line at the women’s restroom for the first time at NI week 2017!” she joked to the lively forum.

Speakers stressed the business reasons for wanting more women in engineering, besides the professional and social ones. Tricia Berry of the University of Texas at Austin immediately found a solid business case for diversity as she was handed a clip-on wireless microphone. “Where do I put this?” she asked, and pointed out it would have been designed very differently if women had been involved: “If you don’t have everyone in the room, you are going to get a design that only works for a part of the population!” 

More diverse groups are better at solving problems, the forum heard, which makes intuitive sense because a range of people bring different experiences, talents and ideas to the party. But research published by the National Academy of Sciences of the USA shows the diversity effect goes much further.  The clue is in the title of the highly mathematical paper by Lu Hong and Scott E Page: ‘Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers’. In short, diversity trumps ability. 

“Our result has implications for organizational forms and management styles, especially for problem-solving firms and organizations,” the paper concludes. “In an environment where competition depends on continuous innovation and introduction of new products, firms with organizational forms that take advantage of the power of functional diversity should perform well.” 

Now what kind of environment does that sound like? An engineering one? Diversity is about much more than gender, of course, but it is a vital part and women represent a vast pool of potential talent. 

International Women in Engineering Day is just a week away and the IET will be running its #9PerCentIsNotEnough campaign in reference to the number of women in UK engineering. Why is it so low? There are many reasons, of course, from sad old sexism (a problem in games development) to a lack of role models (we interview some of the previous winners of the Young Engineer of the Year Award). 

Engineering has long had an image problem (geeky in the US, hard hat and spanner in the UK), which plays particularly badly with women and girls. How can we fix it? We asked some of London’s top creative agencies how they’d go about it and you can see and vote on which you think would work best.

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