Global expert explains why we must bridge the gender gap in engineering

Posted on: 27 October 2016

The lack of women studying and working in engineering is inflicting a significant loss on the economy and steps must be taken to bridge this diversity gap. That is according to the President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Professor Dame Ann Dowling, who this week delivered a public lecture entitled Diversity and inclusion: a value proposition for engineering at Trinity College Dublin.

A lack of diversity, including gender diversity, is damaging to the pharma, food, IT and biomedical engineering sectors — which are driving Ireland’s export economy — because diversity is a key factor in nurturing innovation.

Just one in ten engineers in Ireland is female, while only 6% of engineering professionals in the UK are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds – despite 25% of engineering graduates living in the UK falling into that category.

At her lecture, Professor Dowling discussed some of the key lessons learned from the Royal Academy of Engineering’s diversity and inclusion programme in the UK. This programme, funded by the UK government, has recently completed its first phase and has made notable progress working with employers, UK professional bodies and third-sector organisations in raising awareness, sharing leading practice, and driving change across the industry. There are some important lessons for Ireland.

Dame Ann’s lecture was hosted in conjunction with Engineers Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy in the Edmund Burke Theatre, Trinity, You can listen to a podcast kindly recorded and edited by Dublin journalist, Angela Mezzetti.

Director of the Centre for Women in Science and Engineering Research (WiSER) in Trinity, Professor Eileen Drew, said: “It is no longer acceptable to consider ‘the norm of 10% to 20%’ women as adequate in such a challenging profession that has such a critical role in the economy. 

“A recent report by Eurostat showed that 85% of engineering, manufacturing and construction graduates in Ireland were male in 2014, compared to the EU average of 73%, which implies the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ is an even bigger issue here in Ireland. If female participation in engineering increased, a tipping point would be reached. This is generally regarded as being 30-35% – at which the perspectives of both groups, and the character of relations between them, would begin to change qualitatively. This is the critical mass at which sustainable change can be achieved.”

“Given the strong demand for engineers across all disciplines/sectors in Ireland and elsewhere, we cannot afford to ignore major components of the potential talent pool. Bridging the gender gap is a major focus, but it is important to recognise that engineering suffers from a lack of diversity in general — and that needs to change.”

Caroline Spillane, Director General, Engineers Ireland, said: “We were honoured to have Dame Ann Dowling present on ‘Diversity and inclusion: a value proposition for engineering’ in Trinity, and were delighted to partner with WiSER and the Royal Irish Academy to bring this highly important topic to a public forum for wider discussion. 

“Lack of diversity in engineering is a concern in many countries and it is a priority issue for Engineers Ireland. Our future engineers will help to modernise and build a better Ireland – and all voices need to be heard. To deliver the best creative solutions to societal needs, we need to narrow the gender gap and create balance within the profession. Engineers Ireland has sought to address the gender divide at a grassroots level through our nationwide STEPS initiative, where we encourage all young people to actively explore the world of STEM while also promoting engineering as an exciting and diverse career choice.”

Laura Mahoney, CEO of the Royal Irish Academy, said that promoting diversity is a priority for the Academy. “Our ‘Women on walls’ initiative with Accenture Ireland and our master class series both aim to make women leaders visible and create positive role models," she added.

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