Diversity in STEM
Most people know that STEM subjects are predominantly male-dominated. When I chose to pursue GCSE Electronics in school, I was one of two girls in a classroom of thirty boys. I remember feeling like an outsider and having to be more guarded with my engagement in the classroom because I was worried that if I said something wrong, my peers would think “girls are not as good at this male-dominated subject” rather than realise that I had made a mistake that anybody else in the class could also have made. That changed at university; I was fortunate to study an engineering course in which the male-to-female ratio was 50:50 and had people across approximately 40 different nationalities. I felt freer and more confident to be myself in such a diverse environment.
I know that my university course’s diversity is not the norm among STEM subjects. In 2017, only 15.1% of engineering undergraduates in the UK were women, and women are particularly underrepresented in mechanical, electrical and electronics, and aerospace engineering. This is not because women do not possess the same skillset as their male counterparts – studies show that “79.8% of female engineering students get a First or Upper Second, compared to 74.6% of male students” – it’s just that girls appear to show less interest in pursuing engineering as they progress through secondary school (46.4% of girls 11-14 would consider a career in engineering whereas this decreases to 25.4% for the 16-18 age bracket). This is resulting in women only making up 12.37% of the engineering workforce in the UK. Whilst ethnic minority individuals make up approximately 14% of the UK population, they form only 8.1% of the engineering sector due to factors such as lack of representation. More needs to be done to encourage girls and ethnic minority students in schools to pursue their interests in STEM and not be intimidated away from it because of the lack of representation and role models.
The future is thankfully looking to follow an upward trajectory. Between the years of 2010 and 2019, the number of girls taking STEM A-levels has increased by 31%. Higher education has seen 50.1% more women being accepted onto STEM undergraduate courses between 2011 and 2020. Between 2004 to 2018, we have seen a rise in the percentage of CEOs who come from ethnic minority backgrounds in companies that make up the S&P500 – for Asian/Indian this has risen from 12% to 30% and for Hispanic/Latino this has risen from 9% to 19%. It is important that STEM companies hire, encourage, and champion a diverse range of people to make these spaces feel more accessible for the next generation. It is also beneficial for companies, as it brings in a variety of talent and perspective that will have a positive impact on future innovation.
Diversity in Design
In engineering and design, a lack of diversity can lead to overlooking people who are different to us and how their needs may differ from our own. This can lead to products that are not inclusive and, in some cases, can have a significant impact on the safety of individuals.
Developing and testing within product design usually revolves around a Reference Man, defined as “a human being of statistically average size and physiology” which is an able-bodied Caucasian male between the ages of 25-30 who weighs 70kg and is 170cm, to represent us all. This makes technology less accessible to certain groups of people. For example, phones and machinery being designed for the average male hand means it is more difficult for women to use; image recognition on phones not recognizing darker skin tones, and fitness trackers inaccurately estimating biological parameters due to assumptions that the user has the Reference Man body composition. Other more severe examples include women having a higher risk of injury in car accidents as on average they sit closer to the wheel and are shorter, but the Reference Man doesn’t account for this.
In a recent article by BBC News, certain pulse oximetry devices came under scrutiny due to their original development not containing a diverse sample group. During the pandemic, studies have shown that the oxygen level reading is more likely to be overestimated for those with darker skin. The sad consequence of this is that someone with dangerously low oxygen levels will not be identified which can lead to hypoxia, all because the device doesn’t account for differences in pigmentation of skin.
In product design and development, we need to ensure that the design and testing processes consider the diversity of the product users to prevent risks that can be fatal or cause injury. Having a diverse workforce who can relate the design of a product to their own experiences can help identify a broader range of risks. Therefore, it is important that companies have initiatives and procedures in place to encourage diversity in their application process.
Diversity at eg
Being the only woman on a team can be daunting and off-putting to some and joining the software team at eg, as the only female member, was nerve-wracking. However, I soon found that thankfully everyone was approachable, and I was encouraged to grow and learn in a warm, welcoming environment.
Our Risk Analysis and Usability sessions allow us to capture the design risks of projects and how that can affect different clients. One of my first projects at eg involved the user having to wear headphones and listen to various tones. As a team, we delved into a lot of detail of how the product could pose risks to various user groups. We considered how different ethnic hairstyles could cause the headphones to be ill-fitted; we ensured the software limited the volume of the tones so as not to startle young or neurodiverse individuals, and we ensured the product was designed to be engaging across all different age groups so that the software could collect reliable data.
The key contributor to being able to think laterally across different user groups is that our team all come from different walks of life and we are therefore able to bring our own experiences, or experiences of people we have met, to the table. Having a diverse workforce is a valuable asset and as STEM becomes more diverse, we can expect to see technology that becomes more accessible.
eg technology welcomes people from all walks of life and has processes and policies in place to ensure equality and diversity is central to our recruitment processes, throughout the business and in the way we work. We continually review and introduce initiatives to look after our team and create a harmonious environment, with equality at the centre. We have a great track record of guiding and supporting our staff in their chosen career paths to help them to develop their skills and knowledge. Career progression, personal development and staff wellbeing are all high on our list of priorities. eg female employees make up 25% across the business, at all levels and from diverse backgrounds, with female directors paving the way, showing that women can be at the top level of an engineering consultancy. As eg grows, we hope to see, and more importantly welcome, further diversity in the engineers we recruit.
I have been pleased to take part in spreading the word and encouraging females to work in STEM businesses by sharing my career development at eg technology.
In February 2021, Dr Swati Mohan, an Indian-American NASA engineer, commentated and navigated the successful landing of the Perseverance Mars Rover. This sent a flood of excitement, pride, and joy through me, my Indian female friends in STEM, and across South Asians on social media. Representation matters, because it inspires the next generation and lets them know that there is a seat at the table for them. As we have more people apply for roles that used to feel inaccessible to them, we will have a future where we will see more diversity across the board in STEM.