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Where are the Women? The Cause of a Severe Engineering Gap in Europe

April 26, 2019 by Sam Holland

The numbers indicate that there is a major gap between how many men and women are pursuing engineering careers—and that includes electrical engineering.

This gap is especially prominent in some European countries, and this is having a negative impact on European productivity, innovation, and competition. In order to close the gender gap, two things are needed: an understanding of why it exists, and an impetus to see it narrowed.


What is a Gender Gap?

The term gender gap refers to an imbalance that is gender-based. In the case of the engineering field—including electrical engineering—it refers to the statistically-demonstrated fact that there are more men working and training as engineers than there are women.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has a strong interest in gender equality in the sciences as well as education and progress globally. According to UNESCO, “Whereas women have achieved parity in life sciences in many countries, they still trail men in engineering and computer sciences. The situation is particularly acute in many high-income countries”.

The UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030 further indicates that in both Europe and North America, the actual number of female graduates in math, physics, computer science, and engineering remains disproportionately low.


How Severe is the Gender Gap?

Based on statistics from the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), only 13 per cent of engineers worldwide are women.

Of that 13 per cent, not very many are electrical engineers: electrical engineering ranks seventh on the list of the top 10 engineering degrees for women, according to SWE's said data. 


Image courtesy of Europen Commission, Women in science and technology.


The Gender Gap in Europe

Again, in most European countries, there are far fewer women engineers and scientists than there are men, according to the European Commission

In only three of the EU member states studied did the number of women engineers and scientists outnumber their male counterparts: Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Latvia. The greatest difference can be seen in Finland and Luxembourg, where women make up less than 30 per cent of scientists and engineers.

If we break out the European science and engineering employment data further, we discover that in the United Kingdom, for example, women represented 46.9 per cent of the workforce in 2016, but only 9.3 per cent of engineers were women, based on further data collected by SWE.


Image source: Engineering UK 2018: Synopsis and Recommendations.


Benefits of Reducing the Gender Gap

The first benefit of reducing the gender gap lies in the increased potential that comes from a more diverse group of workers.

According to research published by the McKinsey Company, gender diversity in the workforce matters: companies are 15 per cent more likely to perform better if they are gender diverse.

In 2011, a Forbes report revealed that 85 per cent of corporate diversity and talent leaders agreed that “a diverse and inclusive workforce is crucial to encouraging different perspectives and ideas that drive innovation”.

Another key impetus for narrowing the gender gap in engineering is financial. If we take the UK as an example, there is a shortfall of 37,000 to 59,000 people needed to meet the demand for Level 3+ core engineering skills, according to EngineeringUK: a not-for-profit organisation with a central goal of increasing the engineering talent pipeline for the UK.

EngineeringUK also points out that this shortfall could be met by more women entering engineering, which could effectively add £150 billion to the UK GDP by 2025.

A recent article from the Communication of the ACM clearly points out the financial benefits of narrowing the gender gap, as illustrated in the chart below.


Image source: European Institute for Gender Equality and Communications of the ACM, Women Are Needed in STEM: European Policies and Incentives.


Why Does The Gender Gap Exist?

There are many different opinions as to why a gender gap exists in electrical engineering, but there are two particular points that experts agree on: incorrect perceptions and work environment issues.


Incorrect Perceptions

The chart shown below, taken from a brief of gender disparity issues in engineering, shows that when it comes to engineering as a potential career, girls view it very differently.

A report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development of Australia on Bridging the Digital Gender Divide came to similar conclusions, looking at the issue from the viewpoint of a digital gender divide that leads to lack of participation in STEM fields: “Hurdles to access, affordability, (lack of) education, skills, technological literacy, and inherent gender biases and socio-cultural norms, are at the root of gender-based digital exclusion”.

In 2008, the IEEE suggested that perhaps the reason for gender disparity in electrical engineering is that there are not as many perceived societal benefits—and societal benefits are a major concern for many women entering the workforce. In addition, society tends to perpetuate a false stereotype of engineers that the work involved is inherently masculine and not appropriate or comfortable for females, a point made quite clearly by Jessica Green, a British female engineer, in her article 'Why Don't We See More Women in Engineering? By a Woman in Engineering' where she states: “I didn’t want to spend my career dressed in overalls working in tunnels, I wasn’t captured by the concept perpetrated by British society”.

European women first entered this male-dominated workforce in 1914 with help from the National Council of Women. It was wartime and, with so many men going off to war, women had to step into what were traditionally men’s roles in order to keep things running.

However, in 1919 the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act forced the women to return the majority of their jobs back to men, and some experts say that engineering never recovered from this. 

How much of an impact this historical incident had on the mindset of Europeans toward women in engineering is unknown, but some experts believe its impact is still felt to this day.


Image courtesy of EngineeringUK Briefing Gender Disparity in Engineering.


Work Environment

SWE points out that “61 per cent of women engineers report that they feel they must prove themselves repeatedly to get the same level of respect and recognition as their colleagues”. The same report also indicates that women engineers worldwide earn on average 10 per cent less than their male counterparts. 

According to research funded by the US National Science Foundation, 30 per cent of women in the U.S. cite organisational climate as the primary cause. Another aspect of work environment issues could be the lack of women present. In an EngineeringUK briefing on Gender Disparity in Engineering, 70 per cent of girls surveyed indicated that they would feel more comfortable pursuing a STEM career “if both men and women were employed equally”.


Narrowing the Gender Gap

One way of reducing the gender gap in engineering, particularly electrical engineering, lies in correcting the stereotypes and perceptions that seem to dominate this particular career choice. Not only should society be exposed to true stories of successful women engineers, but electrical engineers need to better express the societal benefits that they provide.

Changing the work environment, however, will be a far more challenging hurdle to overcome. A recent book by Emily Chang entitled Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boy’s Club of Silicon Valley, addresses hostile work environments in Silicon Valley that are no doubt reflected elsewhere in the world.

Chang points to the founders of many Silicon Valley companies being young, childless males who hire other males like them. Office parties in such companies catered to more male tastes and were of such a nature that women would not be comfortable attending because of the sexual overtones that were often present.

Attitudes and practices such as this reduce the talent pool of exceptionally gifted engineers—engineers who will find different jobs in other places where they feel comfortable—and eliminate the diversity that modern companies need in order to adapt and survive. Perhaps as societal perceptions of engineering change, the workplace environment will evolve, too.

The gender gap in electrical engineering must be narrowed. In a report by the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland, an honest statement was made on the importance of doing so. “We must challenge the stereotyping and bias that can still pervade our culture, particularly within the male-dominated engineering and technology sectors. Attracting and retaining a more diverse workforce will maximise innovation, creativity, and competitiveness.”

Narrowing the gender gap will also help meet the shortfall of qualified engineers that many European companies are struggling with while increasing national GDPs. Minimising the gender gap is critical for companies that want to maintain a competitive edge as a result of diversity-driven innovation.

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