International Women in Engineering Day
Today, the 23rd of June, marks nearly the halfway point on our calendars. It’s exciting to look back and see six months of collaboration, exciting conversations with clients – old and new – and a growing, diverse team of staff and engineers.
Today also marks International Women in Engineering Day, a global day celebrating the strengths and achievements of female engineers who contribute to making the world a better and safer place. This year’s theme, Make Safety Seen, highlights several avenues to explore.
Safety is paramount to introducing users to modern technologies and products. For higher-risk environments, such as the MedTech and LabTech sectors, the standards and regulations have even greater gravitas.
Psychological safety is also important. Innovation must balance creativity with risk-taking, and speed of progress with risk assessment. Learning and adapting are constants in the process, Creating an environment where everybody is empowered to assess risks and drive innovation whilst implementing industry standard risk management frameworks is crucial.
Risk Management & Decision-making
Risks are tightly controlled. Especially by project managers, who can identify risks from overseeing projects, interacting with stakeholders and working within specified quality management systems. As we’ve seen at eg, many women thrive in decision-making roles and are usually good communicators, working well in bringing teams together to find solutions. Their soft skills are key in raising matters in a safe way, minimising the risk of conflict or deeming matters insignificant, making them integral in contributing to the physical safety of products.
In industry, Deloitte have picked up on the strength of having women in decision-making roles. The leading accountancy firm reports mixed-gender teams encountered greater differences in perspectives compared to male-only teams, highlighting their natural tendency for soft skills and broader perspectives.
Deloitte also weighed in on the rigorous safety implementation in the MedTech industry, predicting that an increase of women in decision-making roles could address the shortcomings in physical safety, where women represent half of all medical procedures but not half of all engineering teams.
For the sake of anonymity, the diagram below is entirely fictional and does not represent the project referred to. Although much of the detail and complexity has been removed to ensure this is generic, it is a useful demonstration of the level of consideration required throughout the process.
Leveraging women’s skills could improve product usability
There is certainly a wider consensus that underrepresentation of women points to an opportunity for safety improvements. The usability of any engineered product should consider not only the user (taking into account any medical conditions, disabilities or dexterity issues that may affect user interaction), but also the product’s use environment, whether it’s controlled, exposed to the elements or allowing for multiple users. Given the biological differences between men and women, it’s likely that the latter may handle or interact with a product differently. As such, ensuring your engineering team includes women is key to better representation.
It is also important to consider the impact of female engineers in the product development of FemTech devices. FemTech is a fast-growing sector and building a development team which includes engineers who are representative of the target market can only be a benefit.
Experienced at developing Class III active implantable medical devices, Bec Wilkins, who is the principal Human Factors engineer at eg, said: “Designing and developing medical devices that ultimately improve the lives of people, gives me a real sense of purpose, as my work can sometimes be the catalyst for real change.”
Where are the women in software engineering?
Fewer computer science graduates, a lack of representation and persisting stigma all contribute to the gender disparity. Aishwarya also uses her position to actively encourage women in software through career days at Imperial College, where she is part of the Alumni. She is also an integral representative for eg at industry shows and conferences, sharing the importance of women in engineering.
Fortunately, software engineering has seen some traction with programmes such as Code First Girls encouraging women to enter coding. Industry trends, however, warn of a gradual decline of women in software engineering. McKinsey’s report based on Eurostat data, for example, predicts a fall in women graduating from higher education in STEM disciplines and a continuation of women in the workforce lowest in the fastest growing roles, such as DevOps and cloud.
Fewer STEM activities could prevent students from branching out
A possible explanation for the decline in the uptake of STEM activities is the need for improved psychological safety. What’s promising is the increased number of schools and organisations working to fight the stigma of women entering a traditionally male-dominated profession. However, the underlying gender stereotypes are ingrained from primary school age, which perpetuates the way children explore their career options.
Indeed, a study found that 31% of participants viewed schools as responsible for fuelling a passion for tech in female students to address the gender gap in STEM activities. This comes after a study reported that only 29% of qualifications in core STEM subject areas were awarded to females, even though this proportion is thankfully on an upward trajectory.
At a later age, women may second-guess themselves in an engineering field, should they revert to stereotypes, like “women aren’t as good at maths and science” or “women aren’t as capable of leading and managing teams,” even though these myths have been repeatedly disproven by studies.
Women therefore need to feel safe in their chosen career and feel they can contribute in engineering, this translates to a need for open-communication and a team culture to put forward or build on another’s ideas.
Organisations can help to secure psychological safety for their engineers. The solution will depend on several factors, such as the organisational culture and team dynamics, but we at eg have found that a relatively flat hierarchy and frequent meetings encourage open communication and drive innovation.
Our transition to an employee-owned trust has ensured equality of opportunity and reward. We’re hopeful that similar positive outcomes will continue, both at eg and worldwide.
Solving a problem in a profession committed to problem-solving
The engineering sector has undoubtedly made advances in addressing the gender disparity in recent times. We’ve seen first-hand the strengths of balanced mixed-gender teams, from broader perspectives to greater collaboration.
Safety sits at the core of engineering and women shouldn’t be undervalued – not in their skillset, nor in their ability to represent a large demographic of currently underrepresented product users.
Women around the world have excelled at de-risking products and ensuring physical safety. But, while physical safety can be quantified based on the probability of risk occurrence and the likelihood of severity, psychological safety is harder to measure and relies on open communication.
In a profession committed to complex problem-solving, we’re excited to see continued progress in repairing a well-documented gender problem.
Seeing women as role models could help break the glass ceiling
The need for psychological safety doesn’t stop once women embark on an engineering profession. The “glass ceiling” analogy is at the forefront of several minds, particularly while it’s trending in industry. All too often there are unacknowledged or unspoken barriers to advancement in a job position.
The engineering world is facing the need to promote more female role models. Interestingly, organisations have referred to this as “a challenge that the industry faces.” The use of “challenge” certainly highlights the issues of stigma and stereotypes, but the focus may be better shifting to the demand and benefit of women in senior positions.
Executive and managerial positions allow for greater visibility, particularly in tiered organisations, and a platform to inspire and encourage future generations of engineers. While eg promote women in leadership, such as Helen Coppen as Director and Rouzet Agaiby as Associate Director, it’s great to see a wider uptake of initiatives and measures to help women around the world fill senior positions.
Seeing – not just knowing – that an organisation offers opportunities for career growth can give women the confidence to apply for engineering roles or promotions.