International Women in Engineering Day (June 23- today): solutions for gender equality

Engineering is falling behind other STEM industries in gender equality, but there are solutions.

Over the past 25 years, the lack of gender equity within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in Australia, New Zealand, and worldwide, has become more apparent. There have been numerous programmes, plans and strategies drawn up to tackle the gross underrepresentation, but despite progress in other STEM industries, engineering is still falling behind. Without equal representation, engineering cannot achieve inclusive design or well-rounded problem solving, which can lead to costly or time-consuming retrofits and revisions.

Hatch is an award-winning global multidisciplinary leader in delivering engineering, operational and development projects in the metals, energy and infrastructure industries. Ahead of International Women In Engineering Day on June 23, Hatch is seeking to address and rectify female underrepresentation in its industry.

In 2019, Science in Australia Gender Equity revealed the percentage of women studying or working academically within the STEM industry. Natural and physical sciences had the highest proportion at 51%, followed by information technology at 26%. By comparison, engineering and related technologies had just 19% of women proportionally. This is not where the issue solely lies, as even when women are brought into the engineering workforce, the gender distribution of senior positions remains significantly imbalanced. Only 7% of CEOs and 21% of senior managers in architectural, engineering and technical services are women. Therein lies a catch-22: if entry-level female engineers do not see themselves represented in senior positions, they are more likely to feel disengaged and uninspired by their engineering career progression, and so the underrepresentation cycle continues. 

However, this underrepresentation in engineering goes back even further, as girls at school are discouraged from the subject as they enter teenage years. The Workforce Gender Equality Agency asked girls and boys aged 12-17 whether they were interested in STEM subjects, only 36 per cent of girls said they were interested in engineering, compared to 61% of boys. Comparatively, 64% of girls and 70% of boys said they were interested in science.

Duncan Mallord, head of diversity and inclusion at Hatch, says firms should be inspired, and not dismayed, by engineering’s currently disproportionate workforce.

“We know that equity and equal representation can be achieved in engineering. EngineeringUK announced in 2021 that 370,000 more UK women were working in engineering jobs than in 2010. But it takes hard work and buy-in from across the board; it’s not just a tick-box exercise. It is the responsibility of male engineers and male hiring managers to create a working environment that appropriately supports and recognises the integral contributions that female engineers can offer. We need to start creating tomorrow’s role models today.” 

Tackling the gender pay-gap is first step to equity

In 2021, architectural, engineering, and technical services were one of the STEM industries with the largest gender pay gap, at 24%, following oil and gas extraction (26%) and metal container manufacturing (25%). Since the gender pay gap refers to the average male salary across a business compared to the average female salary, the above data indicates that the roles with higher salaries, e.g., CEOs and senior leaders, are predominantly male. Mallord says addressing the disparity requires actively bringing more females into senior roles. 

Companies could also recognise the additional value in ‘perspective’ that female engineers bring. “If a male and female engineer are applying for the same role with the same level of experience and similar skill sets, the female candidate could bring additional value to the engineering team: that of a female’s perspective to the design process and increasing the diversity of thought. For this reason, engineering companies should offer the female applicant an equitable premium.”

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, female engineering graduates earned slightly more than their male counterparts for the first time in 2017. The median starting salary for female engineering graduates was A$65,000, whereas for male engineering graduates, the median starting salary was $63,500.

Creating an environment that supports female development

Even with a higher entry-level salary, the pay-gap remains, which can be put down to the lack of women in senior engineering positions. With only 73% of architectural, engineering, and technical services organisations having a gender retention policy or strategy in place, more women are likely to leave during their tenure.

Mallord says: “While bringing in female engineers at entry level roles is necessary, it’s a fruitless process if they leave after a few years due to lack of career opportunities or unsupported lifestyle choices. Engineering companies need to provide female engineers with role models that can show a clear path for younger women to follow. For example, women should know that they will be supported by the business if they choose to have children, and the best way to do that is to have a solid regime in place, which has been used by other engineers before them. To enable this, we need to encourage and support females to take on leadership roles and become influencers in the company.”

Male allies need to stand up and speak out

Engineering – according to Hatch – has historically been a boy’s club, and with that comes an increased likelihood of intentional or unintentional misogynistic remarks or actions. While most male engineers recognise and value differences, and welcome perspective of thought from everyone, some need to incorporate actively inclusive actions or call out toxic behavior. Addressing unconscious bias should be part of every company’s mandatory training programme. 

Mallord says: “It’s everyone’s issue. If we want the best team, project, result, business, then it shouldn’t be left to a diversity and inclusion committee working on it in their free time. You don’t have to be female to acknowledge a female engineer’s contributions, or back a female’s promotion application. In fact, I think one thing most importance for D&I committees is to show that allies must educate themselves, speak up, and make a difference.”