2020 is shaping up to be a distinctive and unforgettable year, which is fitting for the Women in Engineering Society’s theme for International Women’s Day this year – ‘Shape the World’.
Celebrated annually on June 23rd, the day calls for people all over the globe to help with raising the profile of women engineers, and to encourage more people to consider engineering as a profession.
This year, Business Reporter spoke with six female IT experts, some of whom are engineers themselves, about the importance of continuing to smash stereotypes and the advice they’d give to encourage the younger generation into the field.
Education starts at school
STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is largely considered to be a ‘male-dominated’ industry – and this has come from an unconscious gender bias in the subjects at school. Jacquelyn Ferrari, Principal Software Engineer at ConnectWise comments that, while she hasn’t experienced the common bias against women in technology herself, she often recognises the disparity between the genders in the field.
Ferrari elaborates: “This is largely because women are often deterred from STEM before their careers can even begin. For years, schools didn’t take steps to foster young girls’ love for these subjects, so their interest quickly dropped off. For me, playing video games sparked my interest in engineering. Now, women make up nearly half of the video gamers in the U.S., so I hope those numbers will rise.
“Even as more women enter the field, we must address these social issues and show girls that their enthusiasm can translate into rewarding careers from the start.”
This is something that has directly benefited Imogen Smith, Applications Engineer at Content Guru. Smith recalls: “At school, I was encouraged to do History or Law over Maths by our Pastoral Care Department and Head of Sixth Form. In fact, the school wasn’t planning on running the Further Maths A-level at all, as it ‘wasn’t a real A-level’. But I liked how Maths is so logical, which is probably what drew me to it initially.
“I think I was always going to end up doing a STEM subject because both my parents have PhDs in Sciences, so I learned to love it from a young age. I consider myself very lucky in that respect.”
This is a notion that Debra Danielson, Chief Technology Officer & SVP of Engineering at Digital Guardian stands by as well. Over the past decade, Danielson has been coaching, mentoring and guiding women in the industry by supporting and participating in organisations dedicated to leveling the playing field for women and minorities in tech, including Springboard Enterprises, Tech Girls Rock, WITI (Women in Technology International), and the Anita Borg Institute.
Danielson comments: “Initiatives like Women in Engineering Day shine a light on how far we as an industry, have to go. There are serious pipeline problems in getting girls and young women to be interested in tech, engineering and STEM. We have problems attracting and keeping female university students interested in computer science. We have problems recruiting and hiring enough women, retaining women beyond mid-career in tech, keeping women in tech careers and not shifting them out. We have pay parity and promotion equity problems and we have to constantly fight pervasive expectations that women aren’t as technical as men.”
Making a difference in the workplace
But it’s not always smooth sailing once school has finished and women are in the workplace. Caroline Seymour, Vice President, Product Marketing at Zerto points out that, “women have more freedom these days to pursue a career in whatever they are passionate about – no matter what field. But there are still some challenges women need to overcome, especially in a field like technology that is often male-dominated. While companies have become more sensitive to the gender gap in the industry over time, there is still so much more to be done to change the industry’s culture to close this gap and encourage more women into high tech careers.”
Seymour explains: “I have worked in the tech sector all my career. I chose this path as I am fascinated by the speed and ever evolving technology landscape. When I first started there were very few women in tech and this has certainly increased over the years but not as fast as i would like to see, and it is still predominantly a male-dominated industry. There is most definitely a huge opportunity here for women, especially within the engineering, software, cybersecurity, cloud, and AI sectors.
“There is still so much to do to recruit women in this space and that must start at school age.
It’s not for the light hearted and you have to be strong, and not easily intimidated to overcome bias that you might face, but that’s all part of learning, and you keep at it. Perseverance is important, be confident, believe in yourself and your work, and others will too.”
Agata Nowakowska, Area Vice President at Skillsoft agrees with Seymour, adding that, “women are vastly under-represented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector, with only 12% of engineering professionals in the UK being female.
“If we want to see more women in these industries,” Nowakowska continues, “we need to change how women relate to STEM subjects, and how they measure their own potential. Women are often tougher on themselves, not giving themselves the recognition they truly deserve. Research shows that from primary school age, girls are significantly less likely than boys to view themselves as capable of becoming an engineer if they wanted to. And when looking for a new role, women will apply only if they feel that they meet 95% of the job description, whereas men may apply for the role even if that percentage is much lower.
“Encouraging women to pursue a career in engineering and other STEM disciplines means challenging the unconscious bias that they are not as capable. Women should be confident in their abilities, and not be held back from going for a job, a promotion, or from asking for a pay rise. They should take International Women in Engineering Day, not only as a day to celebrate the multiple and incredible achievements of the female engineers that inspire them, but their own personal successes and hard work.”
Looking to the future
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. As Samantha Humphries, Security Strategist at Exabeam points out, “For the first time ever, there are more than 1 million women working in core STEM roles across the UK, with the number of women in engineering almost doubling in the last decade, according to Wise.”
Humphries believes that there are many benefits to having a diverse organisation. “The more obvious reason to cast recruitment net far wider,” she says, “is the technical skills gap – women represent a small percentage of a workforce desperate for more skilled workers. It’s a broad issue affecting many industries, but one that is particularly pronounced in cybersecurity.”
Each year, the statistics around women in technology get progressively better, but it’s still not where it needs to be. Humphries rounds things off by sharing this concluding statement:
“Diversity is now a conversation and a recognisable issue in the industry – which is a step in the right direction. More people are comfortable talking about it and voicing their opinion, and there are more opportunities and safe spaces for people today, which is vital.”
Main image courtesy of iStockPhoto.com