Building a Representative Engineering Workforce by Nicole Pellizzon, Technology Consultant, Autodesk

4 mins read

The engineering industry has historically been, and unfortunately still is, male dominated. Research from Engineering UK revealed that by the end of 2021, only 16.5% of those working in engineering were women, a small rise compared to 10.5% in 2010. In 2018, another Engineering UK report found that BAME women make up less than 2% of all engineering professionals.

This lack of diversity in the field is a well-known issue in the UK that the industry, education sectors, and government have been looking to address. There is still work to be done, not just in attracting more young women into following the education and working paths to engineering, but in how we nurture and develop this talent in the industry.

We need to be more conscious of how we can support diversity in the industry and break down barriers that already exist.

A Conscious Shift

During my time at school, I was told several times that industry was actively hiring women engineers in an attempt to ‘equalise the workforce’. To me at the time it seemed like these initiatives existed purely to tick a box, however, I have seen many of them grow to be something far more beneficial in driving equality. These initiatives have enriched the organisations that support them with diversity of background, opportunity, and thought.

This has been no easy feat. In mainstream education, girls are interested in STEM from an early age but interest drops off as they get older. For example, in 2019 women accounted for only 19% of those studying technology and engineering degrees. STEM initiatives, targeting students from Key Stage 4 to early university, often come too late. By this time, those committed to engineering have often already overcome initial barriers on their own. We need to nurture prospective women engineers from the start of their journeys right the way through, not just when it comes to sitting state exams.

Both academic and vocational routes into engineering need consideration with a greater shift towards apprenticeships and vocational experience being a focus. In the UK, only 15% of STEM apprentices last year were women. Teams benefit from being diversified with individuals who have extensive practical knowledge.

Charities can have a major role in driving positive change for diversity, inclusion and equity in the engineering sector. Autodesk supports Girls Who Code, which works to close the gender gap in computer science and change the image of what a programmer looks like and does.

Language also has an important role to play. The terminology in job descriptions can impact a candidate’s feeling of confidence to apply. To tackle this more immediate problem, Autodesk uses Gender Decoder, which evaluates the use of inclusive language and gender-neutral terminology in job descriptions. This has helped modify job descriptions and avoid any language pitfalls that could potentially alienate applicants.

Role Models and Mentors

The engineering industry can be an isolating environment with few peers that look like you and the imposter syndrome of being a ‘Woman in STEM’. I have felt this acutely; the fear of reinforcing negative stereotypes and thus not being able to make a mistake, playing into the idea that women do not belong in STEM. If it wasn’t for a female physics teacher at A-level, I may not have had a relatable mentor to provide a positive influence on my perception of STEM industries.

This is where role models and mentors come in. Outreach programmes are essential in raising awareness of possible career paths. Mentorships can instil confidence, empowering and enabling future women engineers, whilst allowing the mentor to fulfil her own continued professional development in nurturing future generations.

Mentorship schemes within the workplace give the freedom to discuss any issues and learn from more senior women who’ve had the same experiences. For me, it provided a support network of women, with whom I could have an open conversation, allowing me to realise some barriers I thought I faced were internal or no longer so prevalent. This builds on the huge efforts made, primarily by women, to tackle the issues we face in STEM.

Fostering Belonging in the Workplace

Organisations must look to building a culture of belonging, where all employees have equitable opportunities to succeed and contribute. In 2020, Autodesk launched a new global diversity strategy that focuses on individual, interpersonal, and structural dimensions of change and transformation. One of the key objectives is to increase representation of women in tech, including increasing gender diversity in engineering.  

At Autodesk, we have several programmes to foster a sense of belonging in the workplace. For example, the Autodesk Women’s Network is one the largest employee resource networks in the organisation, consisting of over 1,600 members across 40 offices globally. Despite sometimes still being the only women in the room, being part of this community has given me a platform to share my experiences and learn from others. It’s a community where peers can help each other develop and realise their full potential.

Hybrid working also holds the potential to improve the situation. We know that women face a disproportionate burden in terms of childcare and other unpaid work. This new model helps all employees to strike a better work-life balance, giving them the flexibility to work around personal and family commitments both from home and the office as needed.

New horizons: Greater Access

Ultimately, companies across the industry need to ensure they are actively considering how they are bridging the gender gap. This must involve participation in outreach programmes, proactively supporting women from the early stages of education, commitment to apprenticeship programmes, and then recruiting these women post formal education. These programmes should also be attuned to the specific barriers that further marginalised women face including BAME women and LGBTQ women.

As an industry, we’ve made a huge amount of progress already and as the sector grows, expanding infrastructure and support provisions will instil confidence and empower all.

Engineering is a fantastic area to be a part of, with a mixture of a hands-on and digital experience to be gained. There is nothing like conceptualising a design and then seeing it come to life.

Through focusing on internal support and external outreach, we will widen routes into engineering careers. In the years to come, I hope to see even more women engineers working in STEM, to the point where it is no longer noteworthy.