Engineering, at a fundamental level, comprises the act of bringing something about. It’s the branch of STEM that transforms the ideas and theories into tangible solutions that solve problems. If you look at the effect of this endeavour over time, then engineering has, across its various forms, helped to propel us from the first use of tools to self-aware computers and space exploration.
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to think of anything that doesn’t have its roots in engineering. You can be sitting in an Uber, replying to emails or checking Facebook, sipping a hot cup of coffee. On top of that, it’s spring and you have hay fever, so you take an antihistamine. Before you know it, you’ve just benefited from innovations in automotive, electronics, computer, agricultural, materials, and biochemical engineering fields.
The results of developments in engineering are evident in almost every activity of modern life. From bridges that reduce your daily commute, to medicines that prevent you from getting sick. From the technology in your phone to GM crops growing in arid environments – engineering has an integral role to play.
Engineering is a hugely diverse profession and is instrumental in shaping everyone’s lives. Unfortunately, there is a glaring disparity in the diversity of its own workforce.
Despite engineering having an impact on everyone, not everyone feels as though they can contribute to (or are welcome in) the field. Furthermore, for those who are looking at a career in engineering, there is a stark lack of diverse role models. In Western countries, a white male cohort dominates the industry, and there are low enrolment rates of women and BME students on engineering courses. As there is currently an increasing need for engineering graduates, these underrepresented groups could hold the source of untapped potential the industry so desperately needs.
The state of Diversity
In the UK, the number of female engineers in the workforce falls around 10%. Other prominent western countries show similar figures: such as Australia (12%), Canada (13%), and the United States (14%). The number of female engineering students in these locations is slightly higher, falling between 17-22%, which suggests that some graduates are being lost to alternative careers after finishing their degrees.
Furthermore, representation of ethnic minorities in the engineering workforce is also poor, at around 6% of the UK’s workforce. Factoring in employment rates, even high estimates suggesting that 27% of BME engineering students in the UK will graduate, still only translate to a BME workforce of 13%.
LGBTQ+ students are 8% less likely to remain in a STEM subject at university (after 4 years) than those that identify as heterosexual. In the workforce, 25% of LGBTQ+ engineers have received offensive comments within the past 12 months.
Disability status does not affect the percentage of students receiving a first/2:1 degree. However, across all disciplines, there is a 7% reduction in the percentage of full-time workers, six months after graduating.
The prevalence of these low figures, particularly for gender and race, highlights that several barriers exist along the educational ‘pipeline’. From studying engineering and graduate entry, to the continued presence in the profession over later years, these barriers progressively reduce the size and diversity of the workforce.
The good news is that several countries are starting to make good progress towards increasing diversity in the workforce. Latvia, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, for example, have a female engineering workforce of nearly 30%, and in Oman and Malaysia, the number almost reaches 50%. Additionally, large businesses such as Pinterest, Slack, and Apple are working to improve hiring rates from minority groups.
That said, there is a long way to go and a lot of work to do. Systemic problems such as unconscious bias, stereotype confirmation and pay gaps need both addressing, and constant evaluation, to be overcome.
We also need to make sure that we create a truly inclusive and diverse culture within the workforce. If institutions fall into a tokenistic approach to diversity, it will undermine previous efforts made to get us where we are today.
This month is Diversity in Engineering month for the QEPrize. Throughout June, we will be discussing the diverse benefits of engineering and addressing the challenges and solutions within the industry.
We would love to hear your thoughts on how to encourage an inclusive and diverse culture in engineering. We also want to hear any success stories in your workplace that would benefit others to read.