Authors: Jasmine Rance, Elise Pegg and Debbie Janson -
When asked to imagine what a female engineer looks like, what images come to mind? Coding at a computer? Dressed in full PPE at a metal 3D printer? Making materials in a chemistry lab? Building a rig to test the strength of a knee implant?
How about the recent developments with COVID-19? What do you imagine, female engineers working on for ventilators? Modelling the supply of oxygen around a hospital? Building the PCB boards for the circuitry? Redesigning the mechanical set up to provide an optimum supply?
Google Image search “Female Engineer” and nearly all photos are of a female, posed, wearing a high vis jacket and hard hat; usually holding a clipboard or large rolled up sheet of paper. Not exactly displaying the diverse range of opportunities there are within engineering. But how do we change this? How can we correctly promote all aspects of women in engineering?
There have been a few different projects in recent years that were aimed at improving this. For example:
- Jaguar Land Rover and Getty Images teamed up in order to improve the visual representation of women in engineering,
- RAEng have set up a free library of images of engineers to “encourage website owners and image users to deploy a more diverse range of images when showcasing engineers and the industries in which they work”
- EngineeringUK presented a detailed report in 2016 that found there was a great need to dispel the myths and stereotypes of the profession, not only amongst young people but also amongst the wider public, in order to increase the number of females within the engineering profession.
However, the representation of women in engineering is still low and their representation in images even lower (take the most recent publication of IMechE Professional Engineering magazine for example, which has only 2 images of women throughout the entire publication). Unsurprisingly, this is also a major issue for other under-represented groups. Google image search “Engineer” and you will find mostly white males.
Why should engineering departments care?
It has been widely shown that there are huge benefits from having diversity within a workplace and visually displaying this across all available platforms is vitally important to encourage this diversity to thrive.
It has been shown that diverse teams take 60% less time to make a correct decision and 87% of the time make a better decision. With gender diverse teams outperforming male-only teams by 15%. Further, when a team is geographically diverse, mixed gender and an age range of over 20 years, it outperforms the male-only team by 29% . Research carried out by the Harvard Business Review has also shown that teams with cognitive diversity (the difference in perspective or information processing styles) can “generate accelerated learning and performance” .
The McKinsey report “Diversity Matters”  (re-released in February 2015), reported that in the UK “for every 10 percent increase in gender diversity, earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) rose by 3.5 percent” and in the US “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians”. Additionally “for every 10% increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior-executive team, EBIT rise 0.8 percent” .
However, Deloitte found that the biggest improvements in an organisation's performance is when they are not only supportive of diversity, but when those from diverse backgrounds also feel included. In fact, they found an 83% improvement in performance .
Therefore, visually displaying diversity within the department is important to improve research and learning. Displaying the extensive range of activities that are undertaken within the department is also important to encourage interest and inspire people from all backgrounds.
What has the Department of Mechanical Engineering done?
We’re continually working towards making things better and these are some of the highlights so far:
For women in engineering day last year, a blog post, with photos of a range of females undertaking research within the department, was prepared by Dr Anna Young. These photographs showed a range of different activities that are undertaken by the researchers in the department and the things they love about their job.
An Athena Swan silver action plan is currently being implemented in the mechanical engineering department, facilitated by the department’s self-assessment team (DSAT). With some positive results so far. For example, an improved percentage of female undergraduates and new guidelines for images being used by the department.
WESBath also host regular networking events and are regularly portraying the wider opportunities within engineering though their social media. In 2019, they put together a video for International Women in Engineering Day looking into how the Faculty of Engineering & Design at the University of Bath is transforming the future by research and increasing diversity.