Female engineers continue to face discrimination in the workplace

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Female engineers in the UK are still facing unacceptable behaviour and unequal treatment in the workplace, according to a new report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

The study, ‘Stay or go? The experience of female engineers in early career’ found that 63% of the women in engineering surveyed experienced unacceptable behaviour or comments, which is as much as three times more than women in financial or medical professions.

According to the findings, 40% of female engineers said they were not treated equally and 60% said it was easier for men to progress in their careers.

The report reveals that the problem of unequal treatment is an issue even early on in training, with almost half of female engineers experiencing differential treatment at some stage before graduation either as a student or while on work experience and 75% being aware of being treated differently by the end of the first year at work.

Peter Finegold, Head of Education and Skills at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and one of the Lead Authors of the report, said:

“The findings of this report show that there is an urgent need for a culture change in engineering companies as well as in academia

“The UK is facing an engineering skills shortfall and we need to find ways to attract and retain women in this sector. It is unacceptable that after completing an engineering degree just under half of women decide to leave the profession. There is also the need to make the sector more attractive for parents, as currently two thirds of women leave their engineering careers after taking maternity leave.

“The Institution’s recommendations include that engineering employers, institutions and the academic community work together to create quality marks and sign up to charters to address all aspects of equality and diversity. Employers and education providers have a duty of care to provide an atmosphere where women are able to thrive.”

Silvia Boschetto, Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and one of the contributors to the report, said:

“It isn’t good enough that two thirds of female engineers working in industry feel the need to adapt their personalities and ‘toughen up’ in order to get by.

“As part of our study, we heard of incidents of male colleagues saying things, such as, ‘what would you know about this, you’re a woman,’ or ‘I can’t criticise her work because she’ll just cry.’ The study also revealed numerous incidents at meetings where male colleagues would assume that a woman must have an administrative role rather than being a professional with technical expertise.

“Women are often placed in an impossible position of either being accused of lacking a sense of humour or pretending they were not offended. It is time for employers and education providers to ensure this stops.”

The report makes five key recommendations:

1. The engineering community should devise and promote the adoption of agreed quality benchmarks for retaining female engineers in early-to-mid career — building on existing best practice, such as the RICS Inclusive Employer Quality Mark. Employers must promote a message that no employee should feel a need to ‘toughen up’ to be successful in their career.

2. The engineering community needs to identify and emulate how the most-effective companies address career ‘flashpoints’, such as return to work after maternity leave, through implementing strategies that work both for female employees and the employer.

3. Employers should consult all employees annually, and in confidence, on their views about the fairness of staff recognition, reward, professional support and work social activity – and, where necessary, implement changes to bring about improvement.

4. The academic engineering community should carry out a UK-wide study to characterise the experience of being a university engineering undergraduate. All Higher Education institutions should be encouraged to participate in the Athena SWAN charter which addresses all aspects of equality and diversity.

5. Careers education should be properly resourced to reflect its vital role in contributing to a successful Industrial Strategy. A quality national careers programme in schools would both encourage more women to pursue engineering and contribute to the reduction of attrition in early career.

The study is based on a survey of 500 women in the first ten years of their career in engineering, medicine and finance. The research was commissioned by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and carried out by ICM Unlimited in 2016.