What makes a 'Modern Engineer'? Spotlight on women in engineering

With the engineering industry booming in Australia, and currently one of the strongest economic drivers, it’s no surprise that there’s a battle for the best and brightest talent across the industry.

Cranes over Melbourne's city skyline

It’s critical that we seek ways to engage with and promote talent across the potential talent pool so that the engineers of the future can fully participate in and lead our businesses into the decades ahead. One of the key areas where we can truly attract the very best ‘modern engineers’ into our business is by understanding the benefits of gender diversity.

There’s a lot of talk about gender diversity but it’s not translating into change. I’ve watched with interest the implementation of various initiatives aimed at supporting and increasing the number of women entering and reaching the top of the engineering field, both in the UK and here in Australia. But, for the most part, they’ve failed to produce the intended results.

You only need look at the number of women on boards to tell that nothing has really changed. Often these initiatives seem to be about ticking a box and being seen to be doing something rather than making any practical changes. If you don’t challenge things and present subconscious prejudice back at people, nothing will change.

For women and men to one day equally share executive roles, the attitudes and unconscious biases of today’s leaders must be addressed. Today’s leaders are in their 70s, 60s and 50s and most didn’t have wives or mothers who worked. They also tend to promote and give opportunities to people who match their own self-image. However, people in the industry today in their 20s and 30s are used to having female bosses and working with female colleagues. They have a different mind-set, and are arguably more aware and more likely to have identified unconscious gender bias.

Unconscious bias has been confirmed by various studies as a barrier to female progression in the workplace. One example is the Hays/Insync Surveys report, ‘Gender diversity: Why aren’t we getting it right?’ where they asked 500 hiring managers to review a CV of a candidate named ‘Susan’ for a hypothetical job, while another 500 reviewed the identical CV but for one notable change – the name was altered to ‘Simon’. Despite being the exact same CV except for the name, more hiring managers said they’d interview ‘Simon’ rather than ‘Susan’.

Tackling unconscious bias is one major step in the right direction, but it’s not enough on its own. For example, it’s important to have female role models for young women thinking about a career in engineering, and it’s critical that more is done at the high school level to encourage girls to take STEM subjects.

Quotas are another particularly important way of encouraging change. If a hiring manager has a good male candidate and an average female candidate they should be able to hire the male, but if there are two equal candidates, one male and one female, you must force the equality.

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, the main thing to remember is you’ve just got to keep doing your best. Change takes a lot of time, and you’ve got to keep challenging the status quo – if you don’t challenge things and present subconscious prejudice back at people, nothing will change.

To read more from Sharon and other industry leaders on what it takes to success as a modern engineer, see HAYS ‘The Modern Engineer’ report.

Sharon Mawhinney

Infrastructure Advisory Lead