Women in Engineering

I’ve been in engineering for a quarter of a century now, and have worked in a number of places, both large and small. I’ve also spent time attending conferences, meetings and workshops; and, of course my career started after attending University. Over all that time there has been a distinct lack of women in the field. Without having exact figures to hand, I would say it has varied between 20% at best and zero at worst in all those different situations.
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Can We Blame Engineers?

Clearly there’s a problem somewhere if there’s such a lack of women in engineering. I’ve never met a single male engineer who doesn’t want more women working with them. OK, there’s a lot of engineers who don’t want anyone else working with them, but they don’t discriminate when it comes to being anti-social. Even amongst my most lewd and politically-incorrect colleagues I’ve never met one who thinks women aren’t capable of doing the job. So I’ve seen very little evidence that the workplace and engineers themselves are off-putting to women. However, perceptions may differ from reality when looking from the outside. The media often portrays engineers as socially inept, introverted, either huddled over a computer, or getting themselves dirty on machinery. While there might be some elements of truth in any stereotype, engineers do come from a range of backgrounds with a wide variety of personalities and interests outside of their jobs. Some of them even shower more than once a week. But the media does have a lot to answer for when it comes to portrayal of engineers.

Who Gets Recruited?

So what about recruitment? To be honest, I haven’t been too involved with recruitment in my career, but have spoken to plenty of colleagues who have. While it depends very much on the position being advertised for, it isn’t unusual to receive 500 applications for one vacancy with only 5 women applying. So all things being equal, there’s a 1% chance a woman would get recruited. So either the problem lies in the process of job advertising or goes further back than that. Given that most job adverts aren’t placed in Loaded and Playboy magazine, we can probably discount any significant discrimination on that front. So we must step back further. My engineering course at university (a top-10 Russell group one, so a semi-humble brag) was around 95% male. Other engineering disciplines varied a bit, but still very much male dominated. So what’s holding back women from applying to university engineering courses?

Is It A School Problem?

In the UK, the traditional path into university is after taking A-levels at 18 years old, either at school or a 6th form college. Most people take 3 or 4 A-levels (it was only ever 3 in my day when they were a lot harder – but that’s another hot topic!), which are chosen at 16 years old. So at 16, you’re narrowing down your subjects to specialisms you’ll most likely be using to start your career. If you want to be an engineer one of those A-levels will be at least maths (yes, with an ‘s’!), and a science (physics being a good choice for many engineering disciplines). This doesn’t leave much space for a breadth of choices, so if you want to become an engineer you’re probably committed to that path at 16. If you want to leave your options open for other career paths, you might not be able to choose the A-levels required for an engineering career. Maybe at 16 boys tend to have a clearer idea of what career they want than girls do? It’ll be interesting to hear you views on this.

Before A-levels, there are of course the GCSEs, which are taken at 16 years old. Usually pupils take between 8-12 of them, and if I remember correctly I took 10. So there’s plenty more scope for a diversity of subjects there. I remember doing art, French, a science and geography amongst mine, so a good mix even if most of that knowledge as long since evaporated. At GCSE level there are a variety of subjects which help in the background to learning about engineering, such as maths, physics, chemistry, computer science and design & technology (I going by the names they were called when I was at school a long time ago!). From my memory, the male to female ratio did vary a lot in these. Maths was compulsory, but girls dominated the top set, so clearly not a lack of ability there. However, computer science and design & technology was pretty much entirely male. So the polarisation of the genders had already set in at that stages. I don’t remember any girls being discouraged by teachers from taking these subjects, so what put them off? Was it peer pressure, lack of interest, parental influence, or the general stereotype of gendered subjects?

Hobbies

When I was a lad, many many years ago, I was constant tinkerer. Whether making Airfix models, building machines with technical Lego, constructing electronics circuits or writing BASIC programs on my early 80s home computer; they was rarely a time where I wasn’t building or designing something. I learnt so much from this play, that it made much of my formal education much easier as I had gathered the basics at home at a younger age. In those pre-internet days, much of the information was gathered from magazines and from my dad who was also very practical. Some of my school friends also had similar hobbies, and we often swapped ideas and proudly showed off our creations to each other. However, I don’t remember any female friends or sisters really having any similar hobbies, with even Lego being considered a boys toy back then (despite it being very non-gendered in those days). They simply didn’t seem interested in such pastimes and would rather do more ‘girlie’ things.

I certainly wasn’t forced into the hobbies I did, and much of it was really from taking an interest in what my dad was doing. Having said that, I also enjoyed helping my mum with baking and she encouraged my more artistic side (which I’ve long since lost). My sisters were simply not interested in what my dad was up to, but he never said they shouldn’t take an interest in those things.

So I think if you want girls to consider engineering and STEM in general, they really need to be exposed to interesting hobbies when young. Looking at my own children I would say they really start to specialise in interests around the age of 6 to 8. Both my children (one of each) love their Lego, but do play in rather different ways. The girl is very much into building houses where her figures have distinct personalities and do quite real-world things. Whereas the boy is very much into goodies and baddies, and building things that fly or drive. However, both are actively building and designing their models, so they are both engineering. I try to ensure there’s plenty of practical things around for them to play with, but try not to force anything on them, and certainly don’t tell them they should play with something as it’s only for boys/girls. So if you have a girl, make sure there’s plenty of opportunities for her to access practical toys and technology that allows creativity and logical thinking. Also, make sure you as a parent (or friend, or relative) are seen doing practical and creative things and be ready to get them to join in with you, or at least talk to them about it.

Encouragement

There’s a fine line between encouragement, where a child is doing something willingly and enjoying it, and hot-housing a child into something a parent wants them to excel at. Children can quite easily dive into something with massive enthusiasm for a few weeks or days and then lose interest and never come back to it again. Occasionally some activities will stick and they’ll persist with them for much longer. I’m sure we’ve seen toys that are always out and others which get used once and collect dust in the back of the cupboard. It’s important to spot which activities an child takes an interest in and encourage them along, particularly if it is something which is enhancing their development. However, if you get too forceful with this encouragement, it can put them off and they’ll end up never wanting to do it again. Sometimes its difficult to tell how forceful you are if it’s something you’ve got an enthusiasm for yourself. But, never try and put children off from doing things, particularly if they start to feel it is something they shouldn’t be doing through peer pressure.

So to start to get more girls into engineering, they need encouragement at a very young age to take up hobbies and in their play. But you should never force them into things if they show no interest in them. I’d much rather see a girl who is a passionate fashion designer than a reluctant engineer. But if she does show interest in engineering and science, make sure it isn’t only in school where she gets to learn about it, give her all the encouragement you can. It becomes particularly important through the adolescent years when peer pressure and hormones can pull them away.

Will We Ever Reach 50%?

To be brutally honest, I don’t think we’ll ever see engineering being 50% female. My main reasons for this do come from observing how children play, and despite many people’s efforts to not restrict play along gender lines, generally speaking girls and boys do play differently. However, that doesn’t mean we should just give up, as there are plenty of girls how there who would take to engineering brilliantly and they should be encouraged. So we need parents and teachers to really show the way and ensure girls are given the opportunities to learn and enjoy engineering-related activities, and that they retain this while growing up. So I think we can increase the number of female engineers, but it’ll take a long time and the focus should be on the young and not on employers’ recruitment methods.

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The Management

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I’m sure we’ve worked in different companies and organisation in our careers where you and your colleagues talk about ‘the management‘ or ‘them upstairs‘. Do we ever refer to them with fondness or true reverence? No, I rarely think so. Yet when we want to progress in our careers the path is assumed we’ll end up being managers regardless of our backgrounds. Anyone who decides to stay as a ‘mere’ engineer is somehow deemed less worthy and inevitably gets paid less. This is certainly my view from a British viewpoint, but the culture may differ elsewhere in the world. I’m also just an engineer, I haven’t done any management courses (bar some project managements odds and ends), let alone done an MBA, though I have done a fair bit of ‘managing’ in my time.

Layers

How many managers have you got? Or rather how many managers do you need to go through to get to the top dog? Three, four, maybe? Some larger organisations it can be into double figures. I’ve worked in places where I couldn’t count how many levels I would need to get through before hitting the ceiling. Many of these layers just consisted of one person reporting to another. While I can appreciate an organisation with thousands of staff are going to have some sort of layered structure, it often seems that many of them are unnecessary, inefficient and cause discontent.

The hierarchical structure of most organisations is a legacy of the military, where rigid structures, layers and deference are long traditions dating back to Roman times (I’m no historian, but I’m sure someone can tell me more about this). Britain has always been in awe of its military, particularly in the years of Empire when we took over the world, by fair means and mostly foul. We’ve had our world wars and a few invasions since to sooth the ego of our leaders, control the flow of money, and put our stamp on the world stage. As the military had these strict hierarchical structures, it made sense that the business world followed suit. Even one our greatest inventions, the NHS, has traditionally followed this structure with its staff. You have people at the bottom doing the least skilled jobs, then you step up to those with more skills who may need to manage the less skilled below them. This continues up through the strata as each layer does more ‘managing’ and less actual productive work. While this might work in a military situation where those in the lowest ranks are essentially cannon fodder, and if you survive and get promoted you move away from the dangerous stuff and are then allowed to force those below into the dangerous roles. In the military, you do what your superior tells you and that’s that. Whereas in the business world, the people at the sharp end doing the productive work (whether making, designing, or providing the service) do and should challenge and steer what their ‘superior’ wants. It’s not a one way flow of orders and instructions, but a two-way process. This is one reason why a multi-layered, purely hierarchical structure doesn’t always work.

Reporting

Another problem with layers of management is that each layer will need reporting between them. I’m sure we’ve all played Chinese whispers as kids, and the more layers you have the greater loss and misinterpretation of information that occurs. Another problem in hierarchical structures different branches are isolated from each other, so useful information rarely makes it across and has to go all the way to the top and back down again. This results in different departments either working on the same thing (duplicating effort) or simply doing completely contradictory tasks.

The more layers you have the more reporting that’s required, and it ends with with middle managers just being conduits for information without doing anything with it. They hassle their underlings for some bullet points, shove into the dreaded PowerPoint presentation, present it to the manager above, who picks out the headlines and repeats the process. Vital points get lost, or often misunderstood, and it often doesn’t end up with who would find the information most useful.

Types of manager

The term ‘manager’ seems to be a rather simplified catch-all title for a wide variety of different roles and required skills. There’s project managers, line managers, strategic managers, and many more covering all different levels and responsibilities. Let’s compare project managers and line managers –

  • A project manager needs to plan out a project, allocate resources, maybe deal with some budgeting, have a technical background in the project itself and communicate between the people on the project. For an engineer, many of these things are quite natural, whereas some aspects of the job would be less comfortable (I’ve rarely met an engineer who enjoys the accounting side of projects).
  • A line manager is usually responsible for dealing with a team of staff, ensuring they are performing properly, they are getting the right training, receive communication on company activities and policies, and being a friendly ear for your staff. There’s very little in common with a project manager, and the skill set is very different. For an engineer, line management isn’t the most natural fit. But that’s not to say an engineer can’t become a good line manager, but they aren’t going to be doing much engineering when line managing.

Despite these two roles having very different skill sets and responsibilities, it is very common for the same person to be doing the both jobs rolled into one. The result is often a massive compromise in both areas, and often conflicts of interest in dealing with staff and colleagues. It also makes even less sense for an engineer to be expected to metamorphosize into one of these roles without both training and the desire to do that sort of work. While technical knowledge is vital for these management roles, it doesn’t need to be at the depth required for the engineers doing the work, so why waste a highly skilled and experienced engineer and turn them into manager? It’s like asking Lionel Messi to play in goal as he’s your best player, rather than finding a proper goalkeeper.

Engineering glass ceiling

If you’re an engineer who doesn’t want to end up being some sort of manager, as a result effectively give up on doing any engineering work, then you’re going to resign yourself to the fact that you’re not going to be hitting the top ranks in an organisation with the resultant rewards. I’ve been an engineer for over 20 years, and in that time may have seen maybe two or so engineers ending up in the sort of positions reserved for top management and still retaining engineering as their main role. Not only does this glass ceiling restrict progress and recognition for engineers, it doesn’t help any company to lack the expertise in the board room and other areas of influence. This is certainly a problem in the UK, but maybe things are better in other parts of the world. Again this is a symptom of the hierarchical and over-layered approach of many organisations.

How can we spot a good manager

Of course it is very subjective on what makes a good manager. Take football as an extreme example, and Jose Mourinho as our manager. His teams have won many trophies over the past decade or so, so he’s clearly doing something right in his job. But take his last season at Chelsea, when as reigning champions, they were 16th when Mourinho got sacked. Clearly some things were going very wrong, and Mourinho must have made some big mistakes along the way. We can hazard (and Hazard was one player who didn’t perform that season) a guess that he had lost influence with the players and he couldn’t motivate them any more. The incident surrounding the club doctor may have contributed towards this. So despite his previous successes as a manager where the results appeared good, he clearly had some serious flaws that came to a head and ended up in the team’s performance slumping.

In the world of engineering we don’t have obvious results as we do in football. If we’re designing products and they end up working well and selling lots, then that’s clearly a success, but that could be due to many non-engineering reasons too. At the research end of engineering, results are very difficult to assess, and even failures can be valuable in a company’s success. So managers can’t always be judged by results, but they can be judged on the people they work with. A good manager ought to:

  • Make life easier for their team members. Such as ensuring tasks are clearly defined, not overloading them, and removing tasks they do not need to do.
  • Respect the judgement of their team members. In engineering the manager may not be the best expert, and therefore should listen to those in the team who know more.
  • Allow all team members to work in the way that suits them the best. Not everyone is the same, some people just prefer to work along in peace, others like to work closely with other and talk a lot. A good manager will spot these differences and allow for this, and not try to fit square pegs into round holes.
  • Not play the blame game. If something is going wrong in a project, a good manager will look at how to get things moving in the right direction and not dwell on who has done what to make it go wrong.
  • Be a listener. Give time and space for your team members to talk to you and really take on what they are telling you.
  • Not have meetings for the sake of it. If you’re a good listener you should finding out what’s going on. Meeting aren’t there just for you to gather information for yourself. They need to be beneficial for the team members too.
  • Not micromanage. You may have noticed I have a fondness for Lego, and the Lego Movie featured the evil micromanager robots. They hit the nail on the head with these, nobody like to be micromanaged. Give your team space and enough respect of their abilities to approach things in their own way.
  • Say “I don’t know” occasionally. Many managers feel the need to be decisive all the time, but this can lead to rash decisions. If you are really not sure about something, don’t be afraid to admit it, and maybe someone else will have a better idea. Sometimes it’s worth hanging back on a decision and then getting it right, than getting it wrong and having to backtrack.
  • Not act superior. You may be managing people who may have different skills and expertise to you. You are no better, or no worse than them. Treat everyone as an equal and remember you are acting as the oil in a machine. Without it, the machine will grind to a halt, but it can’t work without all the gears either.
  • Set a good example. It might be macho to work all hours on the day and night, but your team will start to feel they need to keep up too, and end up exhausted and ineffective. A worn out and stressed manager isn’t good for anyone.
  • Explain things clearly and appropriately to the right people. Whether it is explaining technical plans to the team, or passing on details of a project to another department with no expertise in the area, it is important to pitch the information in a way that can be understood. If you can’t do this, then there might be a team member who can do it for you.
  • Delegate fairly. If you’re handing out tasks to team members, don’t hog the interesting and glamorous stuff yourself, and ensure everyone gets something they’ll revel in doing.

What can companies do to make things better?

Again, I would like to emphasise I’m not a management expert, and it is not a subject I’ve studied. However, I’ve observed a lot from the point of view of an engineer and have some management tasks myself. Here’s a few ideas that could improve things:

  • Try to reduce layers, and make the company as flat as possible. This should improve communication and flexibility.
  • Don’t generalise managers’ skills. There needs to be people who can plan projects, organise people, lead individuals, mentor, communicate to others, negotiate with internal and external groups, plan budgets and so on. No single person can do all these things, so spread these responsibilities across different people who have strengths in these areas.
  • Don’t assume anyone can morph into management, so identify those who do have particular talent for particular responsibilities and ensure they get trained or are given the opportunity to grow into those roles.
  • Provide a good career path for engineers (are any other non-management roles) that doesn’t require them to become managers. Put in the pay grades to allow your top engineers to move into, and break this glass ceiling.
  • Instil a good work/life balance in your company and ensure managers provide a positive example to others and don’t become power hungry egotistical slave drivers.
  • Provide a working environment that suits the different personalities and working styles. Diversity is more than just physical characteristics.
  • Ensure the ratio of the lowest to highest salary does not increase. It only creates resentment and divisions.

So what are your views of management in your workplace? Does it vary in different parts of world?

Being an Engineer

As I’m trying to keep myself anonymous it’s going to be difficult to talk about what sort of engineer I am, and who I work for without revealing myself. But to at least give a little away, I do spend most of my time in front of a computer, and a lot of that isn’t really doing any engineering; and I work for a large company. So think of me as a sort of real-life Dilbert, stuck in a large organisation, doing some sort of generic engineering job, but unlike Scott Adams’ long suffering character I do have a mouth and pupils.

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