On June 23rd 2022, we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day, a day to celebrate the achievements of women in engineering and to encourage more young women to study engineering. There is still a need to encourage more girls to enter the profession, as of June 2021 only 16.5% of all engineers in the UK are women.
I personally recognise the gender imbalance in engineering. In my first year of studies in Belgium, only 7% of students in my program were women. When I went to Georgia Tech in the USA for my second master’s, I was surprised to learn The Ratio (referring to the ratio of male to female students) was a famous concept, which even had its own song. During my PhD in the Netherlands, I was often the only woman in a meeting room, and I went on to become the first professor in civil engineering at Universidad San Francisco de Quito (Ecuador). In all countries where I lived and studied, there was and is a gender imbalance in engineering.
We need more women in engineering
There are many reasons why we need more women in engineering. The first reason is that diverse teams perform better. Studies have shown that women, on average, tend to perform better on multi-step problems that require detailed calculations, whereas men are apt at solving problems that require a sudden flash of insight. The combination of both skills leads to a better generation and execution of ideas in diverse teams. In addition, women tend to be more risk-averse and men more confident, so that diverse teams can strike a balance between caution and confidence.
The second reason is that we need all hands on deck to tackle the challenges of the 21st century, from climate change to ethical developments of artificial intelligence. We need engineers with a wide range of skills and abilities to develop solutions. You may, for example, think that civil engineers walk around on a construction site, wearing a hard hat and steel-toe boots. But did you know that civil engineers work on a wide variety of problems? Some work in the field of transportation and try to solve the traffic problems of congested cities. Some work in the field of flood risk, and design the solutions necessary to keep our cities safe as sea levels rise due to climate change. Other civil engineers work on the development of materials with a much lower carbon footprint than concrete and steel to build low-carbon bridges and buildings.
The third reason is that we need more women in upper management in engineering firms to develop company policies that reduce the number of women who leave the profession: from programs that help women develop their confidence in the profession, to more flexible working hours and family leave to accommodate care responsibilities. Surprisingly, mother-friendly companies perform better on the financial markets than those who do not have accommodations for working mothers, and companies that have policies to promote the work-leave balance of employees with children lead to a better work-life satisfaction for all employees, including those who are single and childless. Policies that are typically geared to women in the workforce tend to improve the overall culture of the workplace, and engineering companies and faculties certainly can learn from these insights.
What can we do to bring more women to engineering?
At various stages in the life of young girls, we can do more to inspire them to become engineers. Here are a number of ideas that we as a society can keep in mind to close the gender gap in engineering:
- Encourage girls to study science and mathematics: It’s time to let go of the bias that girls are not good in science and mathematics. It’s more than time to stop the message that careers in science and engineering are not suitable for girls. Instead, we should encourage girls from a young age to learn to code, to join in fun science experiments and select course schedules in secondary school that prepare them for engineering studies.
- Show role models: As long as the bias is prevalent in society that engineering is not for women, we need to put the contributions of women engineers in the spotlight. The movie “Hidden Figures” is an excellent example of promoting the contributions of women engineers. In fact, I’ve now read various essays of young girls applying for a scholarship in which they describe how inspired they were by this movie to become engineers themselves. We also need to improve the images we use when talking about science and engineering. A quick online search on “engineer” will show many images of men in hardhats and very few women. We can consciously change the images we select when writing about engineers.
- Explain the impact of engineers on society: Engineers solve problems, and hardhats are optional. It is important that young girls better understand what engineers really do, and how exciting it is to work on the major challenges of the 21st The image that engineering work is dull and boring is pervasive, so we need campaigns to banish this misunderstanding.
- Create scholarships: To give more young women the chance to study engineering, dedicated scholarships are necessary. At my university, we have an annual scholarship to cover tuition for one female student in science or engineering. Besides receiving the financial bonus, the student also gets mentoring from female professors and her achievements during her years at university are celebrated in a group of female professors and fellow scholarship holders, as well as other science and engineering students.
On International Women in Engineering Day, we take a moment to acknowledge the achievements of women engineers, as well as to understand the long way ahead of us to achieve gender balance in engineering. In this post, I explained why we need more women in engineering, and what can be done to bring more women to the field of engineering.