The world of engineering, despite its progressive strides, remains a predominantly male-dominated field. According to a 2022 survey by EngineeringUK, women make up 16.5 per cent of all engineers globally, an improvement from the 10.5 per cent reported in 2010. But, although 94 per cent of UK girls at school-leaving age (16–19) in 2019 said engineering is suitable for boys and girls, the country still ranks the lowest in Europe when it comes to female representation in the engineering industry.
Even once they complete their degrees, women seeking careers in engineering often encounter biases and stereotypes that can make their journey to securing roles more challenging. A 2012 double-blind study found that the majority of faculty members rated a male applicant as significantly more competent and hirable than a woman with the same application materials. Moreover, a 2014 study found that both men and women were twice as likely to hire a man for a job that required Maths knowledge.
Bias is still extremely present in engineering fields. However, determination, resilience, and strategic approaches can help women navigate biases and carve out fulfilling careers in engineering.
Before diving into strategies to overcome bias, it is essential to understand the various forms of bias that women in engineering may encounter. Joan Williams, a professor and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, has identified four patterns of bias women commonly experience in male-dominated workspaces.
- Prove-it-again bias describes how women are forced to fight the stereotype that they won’t be good as a man at performing a certain task, and to prove their worth much more often than their male counterparts.
- Tightrope bias forces women to walk the line between having to behave in masculine ways in order to be awarded respect and recognition, while also maintaining enough femininity to be considered likeable.
- Maternal or parental wall bias causes parents to be perceived as less committed to their jobs after having children and leads them to being offered less opportunities.
- Tug of war bias creates conflict between women or people in underrepresented groups, due to having faced all of the challenges described above, and can lead to feelings of isolation.
Strategies to Overcome Bias
Identifying and recognising bias is an important first step in challenging them. However, many of these biases might be unconscious, and so it is important to develop strategies to fight them.
1. Build a Strong Professional Network:
Building a network of mentors, peers, and advocates can significantly impact your career in engineering. Fight the “tug of war bias” by creating a community that you can reach for support in difficult moments in your career, and to provide advice when making hard decisions. These connections can provide valuable insights, and open doors to opportunities.
2. Confidence and Self-Promotion:
Overcoming bias begins with self-belief. Cultivate confidence in your skills and abilities. Don't hesitate to highlight your achievements, both in your resume and during interviews. Showcase your technical prowess and contributions to projects to demonstrate your qualifications.
When seeking promotions or salary negotiations, make sure to utilise data. Highlight your contributions through measurable outcomes and provide evidence of your impact on projects or teams. Concrete data can often speak louder than stereotypes.
3. Challenge Stereotypes Directly:
When confronted with gender bias or stereotypes, consider addressing them directly but diplomatically. Politely correct misconceptions about your abilities or experiences,and provide evidence of your accomplishments.
More importantly, ensure that you also call out this behaviour when it’s happening to your colleagues, and suggest ways in which it can be avoided in the future. This will foster a more welcoming environment for all women in the workplace, and provide learning opportunities for colleagues who might have unconscious biases.
4. Skill Development and Continuous Learning:
Emphasise continuous learning and skill development to counteract stereotypes about women's technical abilities. Stay up-to-date with the latest industry trends and technologies, and pursue additional certifications or training as needed. Demonstrating your commitment to growth can counteract doubts about your competency.
5. Leverage Professional Organisations:
Join engineering associations and organisations that promote diversity and inclusion. These groups can provide valuable support, networking opportunities, and resources specifically tailored to women in engineering. Engaging with such organisations can help you gain visibility and access to mentorship programmes.
6. Mentorship and Sponsorship:
Seek out mentors and sponsors who can advocate for your career advancement. Mentors can provide guidance and advice, while sponsors can actively support your professional growth by recommending you for challenging projects or promotions.
7. Advocate for change:
Once you’ve found your footing, use your voice and influence to advocate for changes in your workplace or the engineering industry as a whole. Encourage diversity and inclusion initiatives, push for fair hiring practices, and promote mentorship programs for underrepresented groups. Your efforts can contribute to a more inclusive work culture where biases are challenged and diversity is celebrated.
Overcoming bias as a woman applying for engineering roles is undoubtedly challenging, but it is not insurmountable. By building a strong network, fostering self-confidence, continuously developing skills, and challenging stereotypes, women can thrive in the engineering field.
Additionally, advocating for change and actively participating in diversity and inclusion initiatives can help create a more equitable environment for future generations of women in engineering. Remember that your skills and passion for engineering are what truly matter, and with perseverance and determination, you can achieve your career goals in this exciting and innovative field.