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REVIEW: #9PercentIsNotEnough

Did you know that currently only 9% of the UK’s engineering and technology workforce are female?  Don’t you think that’s weird? At Shadow, we’re committed to making this number higher. But how do we do it? Last week we headed to Birmingham to attend the #9PercentIsNotEnough conference, organised by The IET to find help answering that question.

The day opened with Elizabeth Hill of Jaguar Land Rover talking about her vision for her industry: “I want more women to make cars and I want more women in the industry staying making cars”. She went on to mention how the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe, which she finds “devastating”. Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead the way with almost 30%. Outside of Europe the figures are even better – 33% in India and 40% in China.

Hill spoke about her experiences at school, where teachers recommended she try the worlds of banking and academia – which she did, but didn’t enjoy the work. She went to uni and studied Maths and begun temping at an engineering firm, and built her career from there. She said “ My career was a happy accident, but happy accidents don’t get the figure over 9% – we need to do more”. She suggests promoting engineering to young girls in schools – which becomes a recurring topic throughout the day. “Teachers need to be trained and educated, they must provide informed choices to children”. Hill goes on to say that Jaguar Land Rover have a specific focus on diversity and actively try to attract women to join the company – it’s a priority for them.

“You can’t be what you can’t see”

Nadia Savage, a director at Laing O’Rourke, explained that between 2006-2009, there wasn’t a single female playing a scientist, politician, lawyer or business leader in a Hollywood film, and as the American activist Marian Wright Edelman once said – “you can’t be what you can’t see”. Savage made the point that if we have no positive role models in the media, then it’s extremely difficult for young girls to imagine themselves in such a role.

Dawn Elson (Group Engineering Director at Merlin Entertainments) explained that when she first began her engineering career in the military 20 years ago, there were just 7% of women working in engineering. You could hear the gasps of shock in the room – there’s only 2% more women working in the industry now than 20 years ago! She also said that she once put together an all-female team of engineers…”and it was just as bad as an all-male team! Which taught me something – you really need diversity in a team to make it thrive”. She went on to say that we need to educate our teams, both male and female, to get them to understand the issues around gender diversity.

Clare Wildfire, Projects Director at Mott McDonald, said “girls want to solve real world problems. That’s what we do in engineering, but the language the industry uses doesn’t convey that”. This really struck a nerve with the audience. Discussion turned to other aspects that could attract women is considering if jobs can be done remotely, or part time, or even job shared. Savage said she saw a problem in her work – “there’s far too much site presenteeism – we seem to live in a culture where it’s the norm to work 12-16 hour days. This isn’t attractive to most women! Also, it can’t be that attractive to men either! I encourage people to leave on time and really back them up with that”.  Mark Elborne, CEO of GE UK & Ireland, said “it’s all about culture, you need to set a good direction. And set an ambition to hire more women, and communicate it.” Peter Flint, an executive at AECOM, was brave enough to say what we were all thinking: “Men have a massive role to to play in all of this. There are men here today, which is good, but there should be far more men in this room.” We have to agree with that statement. The gender split seemed to be 70% women and only 30% men at the conference.

The need for change

Here at Shadow, gender diversity is important to us. We sent 3 members of staff to the conference, one of whom was female. Unfortunately she fell foul to an older gentleman patronising her in one of the workshops (and she wasn’t alone, a few other women at the event had similar experiences). She raised this in the final panel debate of the day, with two excellent panellist choosing to tackle the issue: Richard Chapman Harris (Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Manager at Mott MacDonald) and Nike Folayan (chair, Association for Black & Minority Ethnic Engineers) acknowledged how painful it is for women to put up with dinosaur behaviour and said that episodes of everyday sexism must be challenged. Chapman-Harris said “I know it’s difficult to challenge it, as the men just think there’s something wrong with you, but you have to”. Folayan added “I was working as a senior engineer, and had a junior with me. He said ‘Oh if I had your typing skills I could go far’. I just felt sorry for him, and put him in his place!”. Good advice!

The auditorium at the The IET was packed out with 150 delegates, there was lots of positive discussion and there was certainly a feeling that things need to change. But it’s clear that we have some way to go before we see more gender balance in STEM careers. We are now working on policies to ensure greater diversity here at Shadow, which we’re happy to share to encourage best practice. This is something we are passionate about. If you’d like to share your ideas or talk more about gender diversity, tweet us at @ShadowRobot.