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How can UK industry avoid missing out on female talent?

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From early years education through university ‘bro’ culture to workplace perceptions, there are still plenty of obstacles faced by women who want to pursue a career in engineering that everyone in the profession can play a part in addressing.

As we mark International Women in Engineering Day today (23 June), figures from the Women’s Engineering Society suggesting only 12 per cent of UK engineers are women illustrate how the country and profession are still losing out on female talent.

This is something that starts in early education. In schools, we must tackle biases around how we educate women in the sciences. No more saying men are better at them, no more giving disproportionate attention to students who happen to be louder. Feature female scientists prominently, even though there are fewer to discuss due to the historical context. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about being a woman in a STEM industry is that there aren’t many of us around. While it’s not close to a 50/50 split, there are women working in the STEM industry who are key to its growth. 

One of the key barriers to more women succeeding in STEM careers, however, is our own self-perception. Several studies have shown that women perform worse on mathematics tests when they are reminded of negative stereotypes about their abilities. So, for starters, let’s stop talking about these things like we’re worse at them. We’re not. That starts in early education.

Starting at the university level, we can address the ‘bro’ culture that can make STEM careers inhospitable to women. Stereotypically, women are known to be more social creatures, but our teaching methods can celebrate the ‘lone wolf’ stereotypes in these fields, rather than encouraging and celebrating group problem-solving. 

Women need a space to be themselves and learn without being afraid to ask ‘stupid questions’. That can be hard to do in a room full of men who always seem super-confident. We can create those forums for each other to build confidence and teach women that they are just as capable as the men in their field. Data helps me make sense of the world and thrive in complex ever-changing environments.

We don’t talk about it, but some STEM careers, specifically software engineering, can be perfect for women returning to work if companies have the right flexibility policies in place. In engineering, you have more room to work part-time and have a more flexible schedule because it’s project based. I think men who haven’t had a career break – and might not be as perceptive – can underestimate how important the right onboarding/ramp-up can be, especially for someone who might work on a more flexible schedule.

Women need to be more vocal about their successes. My first female manager taught me to draft a list of my accomplishments and give it to her before my performance review. She always told me: “Blow your own trumpet, because no one else will do it for you.” I think it’s a great practice and, as a manager, I’ve come to appreciate it for different reasons. I need help remembering everything my team members have worked on!

And finally, there are still slight biases in the workplace. People can be more comfortable hiring and working with people who are like them, and when you come from a starting point of having more men, that can be a challenge. Honestly, it hasn’t been a huge factor in places I’ve worked, but you certainly hear a lot of cases. And I can say that I’m probably more inclined to hire women than a man in my role would!

Alex Cappy is COO at on-demand manufacturing and rapid prototyping business 3D Hubs.

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