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Virginia Hodge WES discussion

International Women in Engineering Day 2019: role models critical to women’s success

Image credit: University of Southampton

Industry-leading engineers and entrepreneurs joined a roundtable at startup accelerator Future Worlds to consider ways to bring more women into both engineering and entrepreneurship.

According to research, women are both seven times less likely than men to have a career in engineering and five times less likely than men to build a business with a £1m+ turnover.

Contributors to the Future Worlds discussion, held at the University of Southampton, included Virginia Hodge (vice-president of the IET), Shirin Dehghan (3G pioneer and founder of Arieso) and Alison Vincent (previously CTO of CISCO UK).

The discussion considered the experiences of women who study and work in engineering and those who decide to launch their own startups. A lack of visible role models and mentors was cited as a crucial barrier to women building careers in engineering.

International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) is an annual international awareness campaign to raise the profile of women in engineering, spearheaded by the Women’s Engineering Society.

Hodge explained that with 20,000 engineering roles currently unfilled in the UK, the “IET’s aim is to inspire, inform and influence engineers, the public and the government about how exciting engineering is, and I’m very keen that we increase the diversity of engineers, which means we need to encourage more women and also more of the LGBT+ community and those from more diverse ethnic backgrounds to pursue engineering.”

The panel identified that crucial to encouraging women to pursue these careers is having visible role models from a young age. Hannah Cordingly, a current STEM A-level student, shared her belief that there needs to be “a lot more encouragement” for girls to study engineering. “My parents are my role models", she said. "As they both work in medicine, I learned from them that I could follow a path in science. Not everyone will have those role models at home, so I think schools need to actively encourage an interest in science.”

Professor Susan Gourvenec, deputy director of the Southampton Marine & Maritime Institute, promoted the notion that 'if you can’t see it, you can’t be it'.

“We all need role models and more importantly sponsors," she said. "Sponsorship is often more enabling than role modelling or mentorship; you can have someone demonstrating a pathway, or to offering you advice, but what is really powerful is having someone who opens a door for you. Often people sponsor those they find affinity with, so they end up sponsoring people who are like them, which does not help improving diversity.”

Seasoned investor and 3G pioneer Shirin Dehghan shared her disappointment at not seeing female-founded firms pitching to her during her time as a venture capital partner: “I felt that as a female partner I should have been a magnet to female founders. I’d really like to see us break down the barriers to women’s participation.”

Ben Clark, Director of Future Worlds, commented on the “perennial problem for startup founders” of finding the right mentor. “There’s so many more male founders that it’s more difficult if you’re a female founder wanting to find a mentor you directly identify with. There’s huge power in connecting people with role models who allow them to see that their ambitions can be realised, no matter who they are.”

Ashley Unitt, whose software company NewVoiceMedia was last year acquired for $350m, shared his first-hand experience of working to recruit more women: “Recruiting our first female developer was incredibly difficult, I believe this was because people need to see that there are others like them in the organisation, that they weren’t going to feel alone. It’s crucial to put the work in to reach the point of critical mass, where you have a diversity of role models who make it clear that this company is somewhere you can feel comfortable. You need to celebrate your success stories and profile your role models – that’s how you build momentum.”

A 2018 survey of 1,000 young people aged 10 to 16, conducted by the IET, revealed that young students lack role models in areas such as engineering, particularly during the crucial teenage years when they must make important career decisions.

The survey found that 27 per cent of young people could not think of a relatable role model for careers in engineering. Fewer than one in five of the respondents could name at least two engineers, scientists or mathematicians.

2019 marks the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society. After 100 years, only 11 per cent of professional engineers in the UK are female - the lowest rate in Europe. The Society is running a campaign to name more women role models in the hope of changing this situation.

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