Encouraging Women into Engineering Careers: Challenges & Possibilities

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In the face of a gloomy economy and Britain's recent return to recession, the engineering profession is continuing to see high demand for new graduates and seasoned engineers. Only 9 percent of engineers in the U.K. are women, an astonishingly low number when compared to the rest of Europe. The U.S. doesn't fare much better, despite the fact that 46 percent of its entire workforce is women.

Encouraging more women to become engineers begins by addressing the challenges they face in the educational system. When we see that China has an engineering workforce that is 40 percent women, we must assume that girls are guided into technical careers from a young age. That guidance appears to be missing or insufficient in the Western world. The lack of faculty role models and mentors appears to be key to inspiring young women to pursue careers in engineering, maths and science.

Studies have shown that women are attracted to the life sciences, arts and medicine because they want their working lives to have a positive impact on society as a whole and families in particular. The years required to master computers, calculus and design don't immediately create these results, and many young women are discouraged and drop out in frustration. 

Yet it has also been discovered that when grade school girls are met with hands-on engineering tasks and given mentorship by women engineers, that they prove to be as competent as or more competent than their male counterparts. With the realisation that being an aeronautical engineer may mean designing a part for a jet engine that gets everyone on-board to their destination safely, "the lights come on."

Once in college, women engineering students need support. In the U.S., the Society of Women Engineers has student chapters in every region to offer support, communications, job searching tips, webinars, conferences and informal meetings where students can interact with each other and with professionals. More than anything else, this support is vital to diminishing feelings of being outnumbered, misunderstood and isolated. 

A similar group exists in Britain with the Women's Engineering Society, which was founded during the First World War. Both groups are inclusive, multicultural and are making strides toward being multinational in an effort to expand reach and encourage women to excel in the field of engineering.

Once our women engineers are encouraged and educated, they must then find jobs in the field. Obstacles such as the glass ceiling, both in position and in pay, still exist. On average, women engineers make 15 percent less than their male counterparts. And men within the industry and in education also have their part to play in mentoring and nurturing talent within female students and trainees.  Despite the fact that the automotive, aerospace, medical equipment and automation industries are crying out for new talent, women are still less likely to win a position when competing with men. 

This must change. More and more women engineers are returning to the workforce after raising their families, and they must also be reintegrated with support and continuing education. As the workforce continues to evolve, women will continue to grow in their contributions to engineering.  Economic imperatives and freedom of opportunity for both genders should be motivating forces in education, training and the jobs market.

Laura Stone is a copywriter and researcher on employment and recruitment in the UK.  

Careers in China

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