Diversity in engineering and the leaky pipe
15 May 2018
PJ Rudden shares some of the key points from a seminar ‘Fixing the leaky pipeline and retaining our talent’, organised by the Royal Irish Academy and Engineers Ireland and chaired by former president Prof Jane Grimson
It should be no surprise to our readers that this article is about improving and retaining gender balance in engineering. Last autumn, I was invited to be one of five panellists at a seminar ‘Fixing the leaky pipeline and retaining our talent’ at the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), which was jointly organised by RIA and Engineers Ireland. In this article, PJ Rudden of RPS Group shares some of the more salient points based on a summary report chaired by Professor Jane Grimson of Trinity College Dublin.
In my view we have to correct the current gender imbalance nationally for two very good reasons:
1.) A growing economy like Ireland simply cannot afford to lose the potential talent, creativity and productivity of nearly 50 per cent of the population.
2.) The nature of engineering careers is rapidly changing as we move more and move into the digital economy together with the fact that today’s projects require a much more sophisticated and holistic approach, drawing as much on the ‘softer skills’ of planning, environmental assessment and communications in addition to the technical skills of engineering design.
Encourage more female engineers into the profession
This more integrated approach to projects is bound to favour female engineers and scientists in greater numbers. At least, my experience in consultancy over the past 35 years has been that this more holistic approach to projects should encourage more female engineers into the profession.
That is one of the reasons why, since the 1990s, RPS has enjoyed at least a gender balance of 35 per cent. We also find that once you reach that threshold, the female participation appears to self-perpetuate itself based on role models already in situ.
Indeed, this has been replicated in recent years in the engineering department of University College Dublin (UCD) where, following an Engineering Graduates Association (EGA) initiative supported by Engineers Ireland in 2014, UCD has led a significant improvement in the gender balance of first years from a low of 20 per cent towards 30 per cent in 2017.
This was achieved by ensuring gender balance at ‘open days’ for secondary schools and other targeted marketing efforts. It is regrettable, though, that during this same period, Engineers Ireland has not seen a similar increase of female engineers entering the profession – unfortunately, the figure is a mere 16 per cent.
The panel discussion at the RIA was chaired by international entrepreneur and journalist Margaret E Ryan, CEO Clear Ink, and the panellists, apart from myself, included Marion Palmer of Women in Technology and Science; Oonagh Reid of Arup; Kara McGann of IBEC; and Ann-Marie Holmes of Intel.
Migration to other professions
Two separate issues need to be analysed: first, why are more females not taking engineering degrees, and second, why do approximately 50 per cent of female graduates migrate to other professions (‘the leaky pipeline’) such as accountancy, business, ICT and so on as they step onto the mid-career rung of the ladder?
Dealing with the question of why female secondary students do not opt for engineering while completing their CAO form, there is a broad number of issues at play. The requirement for honours mathematics is an issue, though the relatively new project maths and extra bonus points for honours maths will assist in this matter.
In the past, there were cultural issues but these are diminishing, hopefully, as engineering is fast undergoing a digital transformation which I touched on earlier, not least in civil and construction engineering where Building Information Modelling (BIM) and GIS are becoming very powerful and necessary design tools.
With regard to ensuring that females remain in the profession over the long term, there is no doubt that, in most cases, the issue of work/life balance is an important consideration. There is a need for employer flexibility towards home working and the provision of other incentives to ensure that female engineers remain in the workplace. After all, if we need their commitment and productivity, then we need to reward that economic advantage.
The seminar conclusions and recommendations can be briefly summarised as follows. These were addressed to the higher education sector, to the industry sector and to government.
• To the higher education sector:-
There is an apparent lack to evidence in the academic world that greater diversity creates better quality research and teaching impacts. I find this surprising but there appears to be no documented information that the situation is otherwise. More training is required for PhD supervisors and a greater attention to work/life balance.
• To industry:-
Encourage industry to partner with academic institutions to work on the need for retention and progression of women with clear tangible outcomes of success. A gender equality network should be established within industry to show greater successes in work/life balance and support for female engineers and scientists following leave periods during the early years of parenting.
• To government:-
Require larger companies to show gender disaggregated data on diversity. Include progress in elimination of gender inequality in public procurements. Extend state sponsored paternity leave and establish clear national targets.
Finally, there appears to be a clear need for joined-up thinking across the industry with a single clear national target to be achieved by, say, 2025 or 2030.https://www.engineersjournal.ie/2018/05/15/diversity-engineering-leaky-pipe/https://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/a-leaky-1024x688.jpghttps://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/a-leaky-300x300.jpgBioBIM,ICT,RPS Group