The lack of diversity in engineering profession in developed economies is a long standing and well-documented problem that has been of concern to government and industry for many years.

More than half of the UK’s population is female and 14% from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. When we look at engineering specifically, the 5.4million people employed across more than 576,000 enterprises, proportions of ethnic minorities and females plummet.

At 9%, the UK has the lowest proportion of female professional engineers compared to any other European country; and only 6% of professional engineers come from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

This is a trend that is noticed not just in the UK, but across all major developed economies. Emerging economies, such as India, Turkey, China and Brazil, far out-strip economic giants like the USA, Germany and the UK in becoming less male dominated, with interest ranking high among women.

Engineering’s ‘image problem’

Professor Viola Vogel, QEPrize judge and Head of the Laboratory of Applied Mechanobiology at ETH Zurich, suggests that perhaps image, rather than education, is to blame to the industry’s lack of diversity.

“Emerging economies have narrower gender gaps regarding the overall interest in engineering than the leading economies of the world,” she said. “This is astounding since women have a far more equal access to education in the US, Germany, Japan and in S. Korea, compared to the emerging world, yet their aptitude to pursue engineering careers is less… Access to education might thus not be the major driver for women to decide against engineering, but the overall societal perception of engineering as a discipline might be a key barrier.”

Society’s perception of – and ultimately interest in – engineering in the developed world correlates not just with a gender imbalance, but extends across age, ethnicity and sexual orientation as well.

Championing diversity and inclusion

In a bid to redress the balance and accurately reflect the UK’s vibrant diversity in the engineering profession, the Royal Academy of Engineering has set out to lead the way. Through an ongoing programme to increase diversity and inclusion, beginning back in 2011, the Academy is bringing together 35 professional engineering institutions and over 60 engineering employers to stimulate action, share good practice and challenge the status quo. The goal is to develop an inclusive profession that inspires, attracts and retains people from diverse backgrounds and reflects UK society.

The Academy’s Diversity and Inclusion Programme is backed by the government, with funding from the department for Business, Energy and Innovation Strategy (BEIS). The first stage of the programme concluded in 2016 with a report outlining achievements, the business case and a strategy for the next phase. Key to this phase, which runs until 2020, is moving the profession on from a focus on underrepresented groups to encompass an explicit focus on developing inclusive cultures where all engineers thrive. Strategic aims include challenging the status quo; demonstrating leadership; sustaining and extending relationships; communicating and consulting and publicising success measures and benchmarks.

With the first International Women in Engineering Day coming up on 23 June, we are dedicating the whole of June to celebrating diversity and inclusion in engineering. With profiles and interviews from organisations such as InterEngineering and the Association for BME Engineers; guest blogs from industry leaders from companies such as Siemens, National Grid and CGL; and insights into the latest tech to make the world a more equal place, don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to stay up to date!

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