female engineer

Rising numbers of women in engineering celebrated amid ongoing recruitment issues

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New analysis from EngineeringUK has shown 14.5 per cent of people working in engineering are now female – an increase from the 12 per cent as reported in 2018. However, recruitment issues persist, especially for those returning to work.

The latest data – taken from the Labour Force Survey Q3 2020 – shows that the proportion of women working in engineering has increased over time both proportionally and in absolute numbers, outpacing the rate seen in the wider workforce.

Further detailed analysis from EngineeringUK will be included in research due for publication in autumn 2021. However, early analysis reveals that the number of women working in engineering occupations has risen from 721,586 in Q2 of 2016 to 906,785 in Q2 of 2020.

This represents a 25.7 per cent increase in women in engineering occupations and compares to a 4.6 per cent rise in the number of women in the overall workforce within that same period. Altogether, 14.5 per cent of those working in engineering occupations in Q3 of 2020 were women.

Dr Hilary Leevers, chief executive of EngineeringUK, said: “It’s encouraging to see nearly 200,000 more women working in engineering over the last four years – something for us to celebrate on International Women in Engineering Day. Nevertheless, the fact that women represent only 14.5 per cent of those working in engineering is a serious concern.

“Women make up half the population, but we draw on such a small proportion of their talent – we, and the engineering sector as a whole, need to work harder to drive change.

“Engineering is a varied and stimulating career of enormous societal value. We need to ensure that it’s a career choice that’s accessible and attractive to the next generation of young people, for their own life chances and to create the diverse and insightful workforce needed for the UK to thrive.”

Despite the promising statistics, separate research from specialist recruitment agency STEM Returners suggests that female engineers are more likely to be victims of recruitment bias than men when trying to get back to work after a career break.

The survey, published on International Women in Engineering Day (today), showed that 27 per cent of women said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their gender compared to 8 per cent of men, while 30 per cent of women said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to childcare responsibilities compared to 6 per cent of men.

Both men (39 per cent) and women (43 per cent) said they felt they had personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to a perceived lack of recent experience.

Natalie Desty, director of STEM Returners, said: “The UK engineering industry needs to recruit 182,000 engineers annually to keep up with demand – this is not news. But despite this very clear and desperate skills shortage, 61 per cent of STEM professionals on a career break are finding the process of attempting to return to work either difficult or very difficult and women are bearing the brunt of this challenge.

“There is a perception that a career break automatically leads to a deterioration of skills, but the reality is that many people on a career break keep themselves up to date with their industry; are able to refresh their skills easily when back in work, and have developed new transferable skills that would actually benefit their employers. STEM organisations are clearly missing a major opportunity to get highly skilled, talented females back into the industry.”

The 'STEM Returners Index', carried out in collaboration with the Women’s Engineering Society, surveyed a nationally representative group of more than 750 STEM professionals on a career break who are attempting to return to work or who have recently returned to work. They were asked a range of questions to understand their experiences of trying to re-enter the STEM sector.

More than half of respondents looking to return to work have been on a career break for less than two years. Overall, 36 per cent of returners felt that bias in the recruitment process was a barrier to them personally returning to their career.

The survey also revealed that the pool of STEM professionals attempting to return to industry is significantly more diverse than the average STEM organisation. Over half of the survey respondents attempting to return to work were female and 38 per cent were from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups, compared to 8 per cent female and 6 per cent BME working in industry.

In the survey 22 per cent of respondents said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their race or ethnicity. Additionally, 67 per cent of BME respondents said they are finding it difficult or very difficult to return to work, compared to 57 per cent white British respondents.

Elizabeth Donnelly, CEO of the Women’s Engineering Society, said: “Sadly, while the results of this survey are concerning, they are not surprising. We have seen that, worryingly, STEM professionals from under-represented ethnicities find it more difficult to return to work and additionally, women are six times more likely to state that a lack of flexibility in working hours to allow for childcare responsibilities is a barrier to return.

“Many of these professionals took a career break for reasons outside of their control, but now, due to changing circumstances, are ready to get back to work. They are a highly educated, highly experienced and highly diverse group of STEM professionals who should not be overlooked. STEM organisations, industry leaders and hiring managers need to take note and think more broadly about how they access this hidden talent pool, giving talented professionals a fair chance.”

One example cited in the research is that of Haley Storey, from Portsmouth, Hampshire. Storey is now in an engineering role after being away from the industry for 17 years. She took part in one of STEM Returners programmes with BAE Systems based in Portsmouth. After completing a 12-week placement working on a Type 45 Destroyer, Storey has now joined the company permanently as a project engineer, helping to find engineering solutions during ship maintenance or upkeep periods.

“I left my role as a production manager in 2003 when I started my family,” Storey said. “I was self-employed after that, but as my role wasn’t related to engineering I couldn’t see a way to get back in when I wanted to restart my career.

“The STEM Returner scheme seemed to be directed at people just like me – someone who had previously been in a technical job but had been away for a period of time.

“Career breaks should not put good people at the bottom of the list – we still have ability, knowledge and often transferable skills so it would be great for that to be recognised.”

Rebecca Pearce, BAE Systems Maritime Services, added: “Over the years, we’ve recruited fantastic talent that we wouldn’t normally have had access to. We really want to celebrate the success and calibre of candidates we’ve recruited through the STEM Returner programme and to recommend that more people use this method of recruitment.”

STEM Returners, based in Hampshire, returns highly qualified and experienced STEM professionals after a career break by working with employers to facilitate paid short-term employment placements. More than 180 engineers have returned to work through the scheme across the UK.

Meanwhile, the University of Sheffield continues to update its 'Wall of Women' designed to inspire more girls to study engineering.

The Wall of Women depicts recent graduate female engineers sharing their own personal stories in order to encourage other young women to follow in their footsteps and develop careers in the industry. The Wall aims to break down preconceived notions of what engineering is and help to show why engineering is a great choice for women.

Among the engineers on the wall is Amy Nicholson, who studied Computer Science and went on to start her career as a Technical Evangelist in DX at Microsoft.

“I chose computer science mainly because I really enjoyed subjects like maths, IT and design,” Nicholson said. “The learning that I got from the University of Sheffield was really fantastic as the department was brilliant and it didn't matter that I came in with no coding experience previously as I was able to get up to speed and start learning new stuff. That led me to apply for an internship here at Microsoft and then I finally came back in as a graduate, which has been fantastic.”

Alongside Nicholson on the Wall of Women is Opusaziba Aranye-Okilo, a PhD student in the University’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Describing her journey towards studying for an engineering PhD, Aranye-Okilo said: "My decision to do a masters at the University of Sheffield and a PhD wasn't a difficult one to make. I knew I wanted to do something related to the environment and I knew I wanted to do something also related to renewable energy, but I didn't know how I was going to have that combination.

"I remember checking top schools in the UK and I found out that the University of Sheffield offered Environmental and Energy Engineering. I looked through the modules and found that I could actually get a better understanding of what the environment was about and alongside that what renewable energy was about so I didn't think twice about it, I went for it.”

One of the first people to feature on the Wall of Women was Heidi Christensen, senior lecturer in Computer Science. Christensen was first featured when she was working as a Research Associate. She has since got a permanent academic position in her research group - as the first female member - and is now the director of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering.

Christensen said: “For me, the Wall of Women sends a very powerful message: I still remember the first time I came across it and the impact of seeing so many women engineers featured. Now, leading our EDI work in the faculty, it is one of the many ways that we signal to the wider world that engineering is for everyone regardless of background and demographic characteristics”.

The University of Sheffield's Wall of Women can be viewed online.

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