The (declining) numbers of women in engineering

According to a study by EngineeringUK, 83.5% of the global engineering workforce comprised male professionals. Women are overly underrepresented in all sectors, from mechanical to aerospace to civil to electrical engineering.

In the US, where 24.1% of engineering bachelor degrees were awarded to women, only 30% worked in the field after 20 years. In 2023, overall, they earned 87.7 cents to the dollar men earned. Moreover, most university departments remained male-dominated despite efforts to promote diversity – even among the country’s top universities, and especially on more technical paths. This trend persists even though some areas of study, such as biomedical and chemical engineering, recorded increased numbers of female students.

On this side of the Atlantic, according to Eurostat numbers for 2022, 2.4 million women worked in the EU’s manufacturing activities, while 33.2 million worked in services. The shares of women in sciences and technology occupations peaked in Lithuania and in Corsica (France.) In contrast, the lowest quota was recorded in Malta and some Italian regions. In this country the case is also documented, for example, by the numbers of the yearly gender report from Milan Politecnico (one of the top Italian universities for scientific and tech studies).

In fact, last year, there were still a few female students, despite the many efforts and clear improvements registered lately. According to the report, 23.8% of them were studying to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and 27.9% for a master’s degree. Moreover, they represented 27.1% of the Ph. D. students, even if in all cases, albeit similar percentages, female students accounted for lower dropouts than their male counterparts.

A picture from the past?

As progress goes, celebrating the 11th International Women in Engineering Day on June 23rd still seems fair and apt, especially after reading this year’s numbers of the proportion of women working in engineering and technology roles.

The picture resembles the past: progress has been made, and women have entered tech fields in big waves. However, especially in Western countries, no matter how big the need is for more talents to enter STEM jobs and fill the ever-growing number of open positions, female talents are still underrepresented in the workforce. Worryingly, even if they graduate in science and technology-related subjects more than before, many leave the labour market early (if they ever enter) in these fields. They perceive them as “unwelcoming” if not hostile.
According to a study from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, women in the US are 40% less likely to work in engineering. And only 15% of them have entered these types of careers. Among those who pursue STEM paths, 61% have jobs in a field related to social sciences.

Even if some European data differ, a constant remains: women are far underrepresented, especially in manufacturing. On the continent, scientists and engineers comprise 24% of the total STEM workforce, with women accounting for 52% but mostly in services—22% in manufacturing. Overall, according to Eurostat’s latest data, among scientists and engineers, women were 41%.

The decline recorded in the UK

Among other surveys, the research presented by EngineeringUK and published just a few weeks ago reveals that, in the country, the number of female professionals occupying engineering and technology roles has declined by almost a point in a year. It has reached 15.7%, an actual drop of 38,000 women in 2023. Moreover, this decline, not equally detected in other fields and occupations, is most visible among women aged 35-44, consistent with the recorded average age when women leave these professions (43). The average age for men is 60.

If data revealed that in 2023, more women entered the field in the 16-34year group, indicating a more consistent flow of students in the workforce straight from education and training, retention remains a problem. Some point out that a poor provision of parental leave may also motivate it, among other concurring elements. EngineeringUK chief executive Hilary Leevers pointed out: «The sector as a whole needs to better understand why women are leaving and work harder to improve their retention, including creating opportunities for those who have left the profession to return.»

With this perspective in mind, EngineeringUK hopes the data will «serve as a wake-up call to engineering and technology companies to improve recruitment and retention practice and approach organisations like WISE, WES, Equal Engineers, and the Royal Academy of Engineering, who can all support women and businesses with inclusion and equity in the profession.»

From recruitment to retention

Inaction or a lack of interventions, such as better plans for inclusion or mentoring programs, will aggravate the ongoing skills shortage in these fields, made more evident by the decline in the presence of women in their 30s. For example, a survey by Women Engineers in 2019 found that 65% of women’s motivation to stay with a company and the industry was growth, development and relationship.

Kate Jennings, CEO of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering and the Environmental Industries Commission, explained, «While there are many reasons why women at this age may choose to change or take a break from their career, there is still a need to understand what is happening and to highlight positive role models and work practices in the sector as we continue to build a greater pool of mentors to help women climb the career ladder.»

Part of the problem in attracting more female students to engineering careers is girls’ difficulty seeing themselves in any of those paths. For instance, a study by Ipsos B&A in Ireland showed that 39% of women do not see engineering as a suitable path. For men this percentage is 29%. These numbers confirm the known trend, by some alled “the dream gap”. It is becoming shared knowledge that if at ten, the interest in STEM subjects is, generally, relatively high and almost equal between boys and girls, at 18, it drops for both genders. But this slide brings the percentage among boys to 33%. In contrast, it plunges to 19% among girls.

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