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How can we capitalise on Covid’s boost for engineering diversity?

Image credit: Monkey Business Images/Dreamstime

Female engineers must make themselves visible to inspire a generation of young women motivated to pursue careers in the profession by the current pandemic.

We have all learned a huge amount from the challenges presented to us over the course of 2020, in ways that we couldn’t have previously imagined. It’s been a unique opportunity to rethink our ways of living and working and consider how we can affect real change in the world we live in.

Whilst it's understandably difficult to see beyond the negative, one of the positive impacts of Covid-19, as I see it, is that science and engineering careers have become more prominent in the public arena than ever before. From statistics and mathematical modelling to biotechnology, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on, and enhanced the profile of, careers in science across the board. Importantly, it’s certainly increased interest amongst young people and I believe this will draw more people into these careers.

Knowing that female engineers tend to gravitate to more healthcare and biomedical engineering topics, I believe we will see more applicants motivated by what they have seen in 2020 to think about engineering for their future. Therefore, we must act now to capitalise on this consequence of the pandemic.

Now more than ever, it’s crucial that senior female engineers make themselves visible, not only as potential role models for young people, but also to do their part to help address the gender and skills gap facing the engineering industry. As female engineers, we all have a duty to make change happen because the problems facing a diverse UK won’t be solved unless we have a diverse pool of talent tackling the issues with varied perspectives and life experiences.

Engineers and engineering shape the world we live in: the infrastructure we use; the transport systems that move us around; the energy we consume; the hardware and software we use to keep us connected, safe, healthy, creative and productive. If those systems, programmes and products are designed by a narrow subset of the population, inequality and risk can be introduced without us even knowing. I’m hopeful that the pandemic will play a part in changing the future of engineering, not only in terms of gender but also in class, ethnicity and disability.

NMITE has been created to respond to the recognised and predicted shortage of engineering graduates and to also respond to industry feedback that graduates have become very discipline-focused, but not necessarily work-ready to add immediate value to employers. Our aim is for NMITE to have a contemporary and inclusive approach to engineering education. We will educate the future engineers of this country and continue to disrupt higher education to produce work-ready, diverse, socially aware, change-makers who will impact the world we live in and transform it for the better. Importantly, this includes appealing to women, whilst also reaching beyond that aim.

NMITE will open for its first students in September 2021 and we’re encouraging applicants to apply by March 31 2021 to be eligible for Pioneer funding. By being more inclusive in our entry criteria, we aim to have a vibrant learning environment that draws on different ways of thinking, different life experiences and differing values. Instead of lecturing disembodied knowledge, we aim to contextualise this in challenges that will create value for the local region and global needs. As well as talking about important issues such as efficiency and speed, learners will also consider sustainability, equality, security and quality of life.

Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon is president & chief executive officer of NMITE, the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering.

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