• Hayaatun Sillem, CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering, is advocating positive change and inclusion within engineering.
  • The engineering sector now celebrates 'International Women in Engineering Day', which raises awareness of female engineers' achievements.
  • In the UK, only 14.5% of those in engineering jobs are women and research shows that the number is even lower for women of color.
  • Sillem believes we need more female representation in engineering so that the sector more closely 'reflects the society it serves',

'We must overturn the caricature of a grubby profession for men in hard hats and high-vis jackets.'

I never set out to become a champion for diversity and inclusion. In fact, I spent much of my career trying to hide in plain sight. As a younger woman of colour, from a mixed ethnicity, Muslim background working in engineering, I was painfully conscious of being visibly different from most of the people around me. I wanted to be recognised for my capability, not my gender, skin colour or any other characteristic.

But as I became more senior, I realised that my approach was becoming a barrier to my ability to foster inclusive environments where everyone felt welcome, safe and able to contribute to the full.

I subsequently learned to embrace my differentness – to find strength in it – and today I’m proud to be able to draw on this in advocating for positive change in diversity and inclusion in engineering. It’s a change that is urgently needed.

The engineering community celebrates International Women in Engineering Day. As part of our contribution, the Royal Academy of Engineering together with Amazon and BecomingX, launched a series of new films profiling extraordinary trailblazers in engineering: Ursula Burns, the first African American woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company; Professor Sue Black, award-winning professor of computer science and bestselling author of ‘Saving Bletchley Park’, who left school at 16; and Dame Stephanie Shirley, founder of a pioneering software company and first woman president of the British Computer Society, who arrived in Britain as an unaccompanied child refugee.

Behind these inspirational stories, and the achievements of many women in engineering across the world, lies a disturbing truth that explains why International Women in Engineering Day is needed. Engineering remains one of the least gender diverse professions with an unacceptably slow rate of improvement.

In the UK, only 14.5% of those in engineering jobs are women and in 2020 women represented just 18% and 16% of accepted applications to engineering and computer science degrees respectively.

At the current rate of progress, gender parity among entrants to engineering degrees will not be achieved until 2085, and the situation is even worse for further education.

The situation is yet more challenging for women of colour, and the pandemic may be further hampering progress with evidence that women in tech are more likely to have lost their jobs than men.

Gender Parity Education, Gender and Work Inclusive Design Workforce and Employment Future of Work
Women in tech were more likely to have lost their jobs than men during the pandemic.
Image: Trust Radius

There is an overwhelming evidence base for the business benefits of diverse teams and inclusive leadership, from creativity and innovation to talent attraction and motivation to health and safety. I struggle to understand why any leader would not want to build diverse teams and inclusive cultures. But there are also specific reasons why this matters for engineering.

Engineers shape our world. They design and build the physical infrastructure that sculpts our cities, homes and transport networks. They create digital products and services that power our lives, including the communication tools that we have relied on so heavily during the pandemic. They mediate the benefits of advances in biomedical science so that new vaccine technology can result in vaccines manufactured at scale and delivered safely to the healthcare workers who administer them.

Engineers will be crucial to tackling every global challenge of our age, from climate change to cybersecurity. Surely it is self-evident that we want – we need - a profession that looks more like the society it serves?

At the Academy we’re working hard with a wide range of partners to overturn the grossly inaccurate caricature of engineering as a grubby profession for men in hard hats and high-vis jackets, including through our open-source This is Engineering campaign which includes social media content aimed at teenagers, an image library featuring real engineers in action, a virtual Museum of Engineering Innovation, and a national awareness day every November.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

But we need your help getting the message out there that engineering is a creative, human-centric career with higher than average earnings and job satisfaction – engineering is for everyone. And it’s in all our interests to make sure that’s the reality in the engineering profession.

(Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.)