Engineering? Really? Are you sure?

Thought
1st July 2016

We need to talk about the social impact of engineering if we want more engineers, more diverse engineers, and an engineering community that serves society.

“Engineering? Really? Are you sure?”

This, unfortunately, has been the response I have received for the most part when I told people I had chosen to study engineering, or now, that I am an engineer. I assume, that to them engineering is all hard hats, calculators, mucky hands and an unhealthy preoccupation with precision. Or perhaps to them, engineering is a complete mystery. Either way the impression I get from their reaction is that engineering’s certainly ‘not for someone like me’ because I don’t fit the stereotype. But what I look like isn’t all that I am. I can also be defined by other things, my age, my gender, my religious beliefs, my cultural background, my economic status but none of these definitions offer any valid conclusion about my interest or ability in being an engineer. To be an engineer can mean any number of things, there is a huge amount of diversity in the job description.

Untitled copySome engineers analyse problems and recommend improvements, requiring analytical skills and attention to detail. Some engineers design the future, requiring creativity and a broad perspective. Some engineers make and construct today, requiring leadership and practical skills. Some engineers are working on the biggest buildings in the world, others on nanotechnologies, some are working on getting into space and others on exploring the depths of the ocean and whilst some are making, others are dismantling. It really is a sector that lots of different people with lots of different skills and lots of different interests can engage with and none of this is particularly linked to your gender, ethnicity or background. But all too often these definitions are found to be limiting the choices of people all around us. Diversity in the UK engineering sector is very low and similar stories can be found elsewhere. In the UK women represent around 8% of engineering employees whereas they represent 51% of the total working population, this is the lowest proportion of any European country. Only 6% of engineering employees are from ethnic minority backgrounds compared to 14% of the total working population.  

Aside from the obvious inequality, this is not an ideal situation for the business of engineering to be in, for a number of differing but linked reasons.

  1. Globally, we are suffering from a shortage of engineers and so need to be reaching out to a wider pool of people to fill the skills gap. In the UK we need twice as many engineers across all education levels as we are currently producing. This equates to around an additional 50,000 people a year.
  2. As a profession so intrinsically linked to the functioning of people’s day to day lives, it is difficult to represent diverse needs if the engineering community itself is not diverse.  
  3. The Royal Academy of Engineering have also demonstrated a statistically significant link between increased diversity and increases in financial return, innovation and creativity, all of which are key factors in any business plan.
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Engineers Without Borders UK has an excellent history of attracting female engineers

The current state of affairs is not because of overt, anti-diversity policies but instead can be linked to the presence of softer influencing factors such as unconscious bias  and the lack of self-identification with STEM subjects and careers amongst the younger generation resulting in a ‘not for people like me’ reaction. Raising awareness of factors such as these highlights the systemic nature of the issue and essentially that the perception of engineering and engineers is at odds with what is needed.

This mis-perception of what engineering is and who can be an engineer was highlighted in the recent IET publication ‘Inspiring the Next Generation of Engineers’ which reveals that more than half of girls feel engineering jobs are more for boys. Their parents share this sentiment with fewer than half of parents of girls saying they would encourage their child to consider an engineering career with some reporting their main reason as ‘it’s a man’s job’. Encouragingly, when shown that engineering is exciting, full of opportunity and, perhaps most importantly, has creative aspects and is about making a difference, the number of parents of both boys and girls who would encourage their child into engineering increased (see this report from the IET). This indicates that the issue of attracting young people into engineering is more to do with the perception than the nature of engineering itself. The publication also highlighted that interventions to address the perception of engineering and engineers can make a difference in encouraging more young people to consider engineering. Key to this is the issue of self-identification; being able to see yourself as an engineer. Achieving this is helped by seeing other people who you identify with as already being engineers and seeing engineering related to the things you are interested in.

So, highlighting a diverse community is one thing, but relating engineering to the interests of young people today is a bit more complicated. Where is the overlap between what engineering is about and what young people are interested in?

In support of the IET’s findings, other reports analysing the interests of young people today (often referred to as generations Y and Z) highlight the significant influence of a life with technology, connecting them in multiple ways to huge amounts of information and other people’s lives around the world. As a result, they have an increased sense of responsibility.  Research by the NGO member body Bond highlights that they want to be the change makers of the world. In the private sector, Deloitte have published a report that shows that many young people believe that businesses should be doing more to address climate change, resource scarcity and income inequality. They have an increased awareness of their role as global citizens and care about social impact.  

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Engineering has the capacity to inspire everyone but the perception of the industry needs to change

Turning our attention to engineering, for me it is clear that engineering is everywhere and it transforms lives, it touches our everyday in very meaningful, tangible ways. Engineering brings us clean water, electricity to power our appliances, transportation to take us to where we need to be. This is what inspired me, and so many others within the global Engineers Without Borders movement to take up engineering in the first place. So it seems logical to bring the interest in making a difference in the world around us and the daily difference that engineering makes together, to bring an inspirational message to the young people of today about being an engineer.  There’s something in this kind of message for everyone because at some level we all care about making our lives better, easier and more dignified. Engineering is pivotal to achieving that and being an engineer enables you to realise it.

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Written by Katie Cresswell-Maynard, Head of Education at Engineers Without Borders UK, July 2016

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