Image of a woman using an Apple iMac at work.

There is currently a need to increase the number of engineers throughout the world, and engineering organisations are making new efforts in order to do so. Iulia Motoc interrogates these efforts and asks whether a better result could be achieved by shifting the focus.

As the world evolves, we are becoming increasingly aware of the important role that diversity plays in enabling society’s successes. Not only does being part of a diverse environment help us to become world citizens, it also provides us with richer life experiences.

There are many debates surrounding the ways to improve diversity in engineering. One subject in particular that finds itself at the centre of engineering discussion is the lack of women in the field. Yet, we face a worldwide shortage of engineers, and copious other inequalities exist in the engineering workforce as well.

Statistics do highlight the pervasive dominance of white males in the industry. Even so, given the worldwide skills crisis, then perhaps we should encourage everyone, not just girls, to study engineering. True inclusion negates any disparities in the workforce caused by race, age, gender identification, disability status, socioeconomic status, or otherwise. As such, it may be beneficial to shift our focus away from promoting women in engineering specifically. Instead, we may see greater effects if taking an intersectional approach to diversity campaigns. If we acknowledge the diversity of identity, then holistic efforts, rather than targeting broad labels, may be the way forward.

Given this possibility, three important questions that we need to consider are:

  • Why do we focus on promoting women in engineering, not on engineering in general?
  • What is the state of the women in engineering movement?
  • Will promoting women in engineering have a negative impact?

Why do we focus on promoting women in engineering?

If you think about it, a perpetual endeavour throughout history is the fight against oppression, and for human rights. As a society, we have the constant need to improve the world, and to fight for equality.

In engineering, one prominent focus in the media (particularly western) is the dominance of males, and lack of females, in the field.

As such, our human response conditions us to want to empower women, and show that girls that they can be engineers as well. Typically, encouraging more females to join the profession involves running various ‘women in engineering’ campaigns.

This is an admirable effort. Unfortunately, what we don’t often consider is the negative effects of running these campaigns so publicly. By using ‘women’ as a broad label, we risk further segregating other minority groups due to continued underrepresentation.

What has currently become of the women in engineering movement?

The ultimate aim of the ‘women in engineering’ movement is to contribute to the creation of a diverse engineering environment. But, the method used is not showing diversity. Women in engineering campaigns do not cover the spectrum of individuals in the engineering profession. They are, as the title suggests, about promoting women.

So, given the visibility of these campaigns, companies may feel obliged to hire more female engineers to align with this movement. The adverse consequences here stem from producing a feeling of obligation, rather than a culture of inclusivity. In this situation, the potential for tokenistic hiring to improve statistics increases dramatically. What’s more, using women as a metric for improving diversity hinders the potential for a truly inclusive and diverse workforce.

Will promoting women in engineering have a negative impact?

Promoting women in engineering is an important endeavour that needs to continue. However, going forward we need to ensure that we guard against any potential problems that may arise from focusing on a single audience.

Increasing the number of women in engineering achieves a single purpose… increasing the number of women in engineering. While that may seem self-evident, the fact is that these campaigns don’t improve representation from other minorities. What’s more, they don’t inherently produce the changes needed to keep those women in engineering later in life.

To play devil’s advocate, then, does this mean that the effect of these campaigns is akin to a patch – a surface-level fix for an underlying problem? What’s more, does the constant promotion of women in engineering throughout the media reduce the perceived importance of promoting other underrepresented groups? Does it put them on a backburner, and place them in a queue of minorities?

As mentioned earlier, the promotion of women in engineering is an admirable endeavour. However, the real goal is to produce a truly inclusive and engineering community open to anyone. If we achieve that, then there is a far better chance of raising both the number of students studying engineering, and the number staying in the field. As such, it may be best to take an intersectional approach, making holistic efforts that encompass all marginalized groups.

Without enough engineers, we risk reaching a point when we will have a population of consumers and no developers. We must adopt the correct approach to diversity and inclusivity so that one day this does not become a reality.

Audre Lorde once said: “It’s not our differences that divide us. It’s our inability to recognise, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

Iulia Motoc

Iulia Motoc

Research Associate at The University of Kent
Iulia is a Research Associate at the University of Kent, and just finished her PhD in Electronic Engineering. She has been an Engineering Ambassador for two years and was awarded the Engineering Ambassador of the Year during the British Engineering Excellence awards. Some of her biggest ambassadorial works involve judging for the FIRST LEGO League (national and international competitions) and mentoring schools for the Primary Engineer Leaders Awards.
Iulia Motoc

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