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How representation breaks barriers for women in engineering

24 June 2024

Lekshmi Rajesh didn’t understand gender inequality in engineering until she joined academia. Here’s what she’s learned since.

How representation breaks barriers for women in engineering
Women are leading the way in various sectors, showing significant progress. Image credit: Lekshmi Rajesh

As a woman in engineering, I count myself among the lucky ones who haven’t faced gender inequality.

Since childhood, I’ve never experienced discrimination thanks to the support of my family, society, the organisations I’ve worked for, and the people around me.

Despite not having any engineers as role models, pursuing a degree in engineering felt natural to me, just like choosing any other course, and it was the same for many girls I knew.

So, I’d guess that 50% of the female engineers who are reading this blog might not have faced much gender inequality in their lives.

Naturally, my assumption was that if you’re good enough at something and passionate about it, you can do anything you wish.

But this was until I joined academia!

Understanding the issue

It struck me that there were very few female students in engineering programmes compared to my college days decades ago, where half of the class were girls.

My initial thought was that this might be due to the location and the cost of studies.

But as I began visiting schools for STEM initiatives and engaging in discussions with foundation-level students, I realised the issue was more complex.

Not enough exposure to engineering

Engineering wasn’t even on the radar for many young girls because they simply weren't exposed to it as a career option.

Ethnicity, nationality, and exposure played significant roles, especially since most students were from abroad (expatriates).

At a young age, children rely on their parents for educational direction, which I found to be lacking in many expatriate communities.

It was sad to see that a girl's education was affected because her brother had to study.

Or, that girls would be asked to choose a different line of education than what she liked just because the family didn't feel it was worth paying for a costlier engineering education for a girl.

Still far from gender equality

In many parts of the world, women are leading the way in various sectors, showing significant progress.

But there are still issues with work-life balance and managing career progression.

And it's clear that there are still regions and communities that lag behind.

It’s hard to believe that in this century, gender equality is still debated!

Maybe we need to think about changing our focus.

A focus on representation

Rather than focusing on equality, we should focus on representation.

With more representation of women in engineering, gender equality will come naturally.

So then, what’s stopping us from having more female representation in engineering?

A major hurdle is breaking down the stereotypes that discourage girls and women from exploring careers in specific sectors, based on the notion that these fields are unsuitable for them.

Education plays a crucial role in overcoming this. Society awareness must come from all individuals, and the best way is through education.

Collaboration is key

Part of the solution lies in collaboration with diverse stakeholders, with the academic and engineering communities being among the key players.

How many of us, be it male or female engineers, have motivated young girls to enter engineering?

We often assume that everything is fine as we see many women in our work environment.

However, what we don’t realise is that there are still many women who aren’t choosing engineering simply because they don't know that they can.

They lack role models or examples to inspire and guide them.

The value of STEM outreach

STEM activities in schools and colleges can play a crucial role in achieving this.

Inviting female role models and supporting groups for women and minorities in engineering can enhance this learning environment.

Establishing mentorship programmes and providing career guidance can support students in navigating the profession with a better perspective.

Staying informed about the latest trends in engineering and inclusivity and enabling feedback are crucial for continuous improvement. These groups can help achieve this too.

How organisations like the ICE can help

Engineering professional bodies can do more in this aspect.

Encouraging young girls to pursue careers in engineering through successful outreach programmes and initiatives is possible with collaboration between schools, universities, and industries.

This will ultimately lead to better representation of women from a wider group, leading to more opportunities for them.

By leveraging their unique positions, the engineering and academic communities can play a pivotal role in addressing the significant gap in gender representation measures.

We can all think and come up with practical solutions to address this issue!

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  • Lekshmi Rajesh, senior lecturer in civil engineering at University of Bolton, Academic Centre Ras Al Khaimah