The 23rd of June was International Women in Engineering Day – an event with particular significance to Australia, as the problem of both attracting women to the engineering profession, and then retaining them, is quite severe.
Throughout the course of my recruitment career, I have experienced first-hand how hard it can be for a female engineer to secure employment in the engineering field. One such experience occurred several years ago when I was representing a female engineer who was looking to return to the workforce after maternity leave. Due to her family commitments, she was not yet 100 per cent sure that she would be able to commit to working full-time. This individual had 15 years of relevant industry experience, and an excellent personality that would have meant she would fit into any workplace culture (regardless of how inherently masculine the culture was).
In my eyes, she was exactly what several of my clients were looking for. But in spite of her qualifications, nature and attitude, none of these companies were prepared to employ her due to her requirement for flexible working hours. While I made every effort to get them to reassess her suitability, no one was prepared to change their mind. Most of these organisations then found themselves struggling to hire a more suitable candidate for months afterward.
That was close to 5 years ago and, unfortunately, the expectations of the engineering and construction industry have not changed much over this time. Despite gender equality being well-publicised and discussed for decades, little real progress has been made in creating a more equal industry. The realities of the construction industry are that it is still relatively inflexible. That is, the engineering and construction industry is infamous for its overworked and burnt out employees, and living by the traditionally held view you need to work a minimum 12-hour day, six days a week, to get the job done.
Current state of the industry
The engineering profession faces a serious gender-based retention problem. Despite all the efforts encouraging women to pursue engineering, a study conducted by Professionals Australia found that 13 per cent of the female workforce drop out between the 20-29 and 30-39 age brackets, compared with a drop of only 1.4 per cent for the male workforce. Confirmation that there is a substantial attrition of the female workforce beyond the 20-29 age bracket.
This is particularly acute when considering that women do not even make up 14 per cent of working engineers. There is no fundamental reason why there should not be more women in engineering in Australia. 35 per cent of engineers in Europe are women, Iran has more than 50 per cent women in engineering, and 70 per cent of all Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates are women. Similar representation levels need to be achieved in Australia if we are to continue our place as global leaders.
Why more engineering firms should tap into the benefits of gender diversity
We have a massive shortage of people in technology and engineering in Australia, yet we continue to try and source 100 per cent of the workforce from 50 per cent of the population. It does not have to be this way. There should be a way forward. Women make up one of the largest under-represented pools of talent in engineering, and organisations will need to devote greater attention to addressing the workplace practices that create disadvantage for women if they wish to attract and retain their top talent.
A lack of women in the engineering profession profoundly limits organisations, and not just in terms of absolute numbers of engineers they employ. The business case for utilising the abilities of a diverse workforce is strong. Gender equality is associated with improved productivity and economic growth, increased organisational performance, enhanced ability to attract talent and retain employees, and enhanced organisational reputation. Similarly, workplaces with gender equality tend to be better work environments because they reflect the real world, providing balanced opinions, perspective and diversity.
What can we do to see more women in engineering?
We still have a long way to go before female engineers are not perceived as an anomaly. Female engineers should not be the exception, they should be the norm. The engineering and construction industry should be a balanced field. However, the engineering industry as a whole will need to evolve if organisations are to take advantage of the benefits a more diverse workforce offers.
Certain barriers are hindering organisations from being able to access a full talent pool, inclusive of the female workforce. Addressing the factors that contribute to lack of career advancement, attrition from the workforce at mid-career stage, and the underrepresentation of women in the engineering workforce is not only a matter of justice and equity. Education, promotion, workplace improvements, work flexibility and addressing overt and unconscious bias are all fundamental to fully realising Australia’s productivity and innovation potential into the future.