Stereotypical image of an engineer

‘White men in hard hats’ image of engineering persists

Image credit: Dreamstime

The Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) has trained a machine learning algorithm to synthesise images of engineers, based on online search results, and found that the public face of engineering remains thoroughly white, male and enamoured with hard hats.

The RAE asked an Imperial College PhD student to create a generative adversarial network: a machine learning system which pits two neural networks against each other to generate new objects (such as pictures of faces) with similar characteristics to the training data. They used over 1,100 images of engineers found online to generate new images of engineers. The images generated by the machine learning system were overwhelmingly of white men wearing hard hats.

Although 63 per cent of the images on the first page of search results for ‘engineer’ featured a hard hat, only a small minority of professional engineers are required to wear a hard hat regularly.

The RAE has joined with over 100 organisations, including the BBC, Facebook, Transport for London, the National Grid, Engineering UK and ITV to pledge to address the misrepresentation of engineers and the profession of engineering via the ‘This Is Engineering’ campaign. The groups are calling on the media, recruiters, advertisers and other groups to paint a “more representative picture of the profession and those who work in it”.

The ‘This is Engineering’ campaign has also created a new library of free images of engineers which give a more accurate, modern, and diverse depiction of who engineers are and what they do. The campaign coincides with ‘Tomorrow’s Engineers Week’, the annual celebration of young engineers who are seeking to make the world a better place through their work.

“Engineers play a profoundly important role in shaping the world around us – from designing our cities and transport systems to delivering clean energy solutions, enhancing cyber security and advancing healthcare – but that’s simply not reflected in online image searches,” said Dr Hayaatun Sillem, CEO of the RAE.

“That’s why on ‘This is Engineering Day’ I’m appealing to anyone who uses or promotes images of engineers to join us in challenging outdated and narrow stereotypes of engineering. We want to ensure that engineers are portrayed in a much more representative way and that we help young people see the fantastic variety of opportunities on offer.”

While the stubborn public image of engineering as a profession dominated by white men is unfortunate, there is an element of truth to it. The UK has one of the most male-dominated engineering sectors, with just 12 per cent of the engineering workforce being comprised of women (according to the Women’s Engineering Society) and six per cent comprised of ethnic minority people (according to a Royal Academy of Engineering analysis).

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