Workplace Experience - Stemming a leaky pipeline

Workplace experience is a well-known stepping-stone on the STEM career path, but are there more specific advantages for women?

Women make up half of the population, but when it comes to the engineering workforce, the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe. What’s more, according to the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), of those female graduates who leave university with engineering and technology-related degrees only 25 per cent go on to pursue STEM-related careers compared with 40 per cent of their male counterparts.


Leaky pipeline

So, with retention a persistent problem – the proverbial ‘leaky pipeline’, and all of its related economic and social implications – how is it being addressed and with what success?

Of the many possible answers to this million-dollar question (or, to be exact, the potential $28 trillion that could be added to annual GDP by 2025 if women engineers were to meet their full work potential, as stated by the McKinsey Global Institute), perhaps the most pertinent issue is where is the pipeline’s greatest leak and what’s being done about it?

Work experience, that step on the STEM-career pipeline as scientists and engineers flow along a notional path representing training and advancement, has  the potential to provide a significant cork, a bung to prevent women leaking out and forever being lost to engineering! You can’t beat the ‘doing’ of a thing for providing real-world experience and insight, and work placements offer just that: first-hand understanding and a taste of what it’s really like to work in the industry.

But for young women engineers, perhaps work experience has the potential for even greater benefits. It demonstrates the exciting career possibilities in a field that they might not have considered, boosts confidence in key employability skills and helps dispel ingrained stereotypes. Not to mention the advantages to employers themselves. According to McKinsey & Co, the most gender-diverse companies are 15 per cent more likely to outperform financially than the least gender-diverse. So, with clear benefits to the individual, the employer and wider society, what work experience opportunities are there for women engineers of working age? How are engineering organisations and key players in the industry addressing the imbalance and with what effect?

A targeted approach

The Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) has a Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Group (DILG) with over 60 engineering employers and employer-led organisations committed to increasing diversity and inclusion in the engineering sector. Together, they run events, compile reports and raise awareness, such as the Engineering Engagement Programme which promotes women, ethnic minorities and those with lower social mobility who have an engineering degree to connect with employers within the engineering sector.

Another targeted approach is seen by WISE, the campaign for gender balance in science, technology and engineering, which sets out to support and encourage people in business, industry and education to increase the participation, contribution and success of women in STEM fields, from the classroom to the boardroom. It does this through its targeted training, resources, awards, events and networking opportunities. Emma Gibbs, a partner at McKinsey & Co, is a WISE member who while still at school took a WISE-run short residential course at Imperial College London for girls thinking about a career in science and engineering. She describes it as a complete eye-opener: “We explored labs, met people who already studied science and engineering and heard about the kinds of jobs you can do in the field. We learned about the way you could gain practical work experience at the same time as completing academic studies and discussed the benefits of sandwich courses versus other models. There was a whole world out there that I never knew existed.” She also talks about the value of workplace experience while studying at university, commenting: “I studied for an MEng at Cambridge University and was sponsored throughout by the [former] chemical company ICI. I did manufacturing engineering, which was very practical and involved doing lots of projects working directly with UK engineering and manufacturing companies. At ICI I learned vocational skills like welding and building electronic circuit boards, as well as gaining valuable experience in the strategic role that engineers play in their businesses.”

WES, the well-known charity and professional network of women engineers, scientists and technologists, is another organisation that provides positive targeted action, working to support and inspire women to achieve as engineers, scientists and leaders, and supporting companies with gender diversity and inclusion. WES recognises the value of engineering work placements and offers help and guidance to employers and students alike in establishing successful placements, reaching out to its network of members for ideas and links.

Some universities have programmes specifically for women studying STEM subjects, such as Brunel University London’s  Women in Brunel Engineering and Computing (WiBEC) programme. The initiative supports female graduates and undergraduates to attain their full potential in the engineering or computing industry sectors and comprises a bespoke mentoring scheme, personal professional development training and visits to industry. WiBEC aims to help female graduates promote themselves as engineers, have a better understanding of the career paths and opportunities available post-graduation, and develop a network of key contacts to help them rise to the top of their profession (remember that leaky pipeline?).

Taking positive action

The Engineering Development Trust (EDT) delivers over 40,000 STEM experiences each year for young people aged 9 to 21 across the UK. This range of work-related learning schemes provide opportunities for young people to enhance their technical, personal and employability skills through industry led projects, industrial placements and specialised taster courses.

While most of the schemes aren’t genderspecific, such as the popular Year in Industry programme, EDT does offer courses that are aimed specifically at young women, such as the Inspire course for Y11/S4 students who display an enthusiasm for all things STEM. The Inspire course provides three days at a leading UK university where students are introduced to engineering through project work, giving a flavour of what to expect at university first-year undergraduate level, as well as taking part in hands-on STEM projects, lectures and workshops, and meeting engineers, scientists, researchers and professionals who’ll explain their own achievements.

And, of course, there’s the Year in Industry (YINI) programme itself, offering students the opportunity to gain professional development by working at top UK companies such as Rolls-Royce, EDF, Network Rail and P&G. YINI is for post-A Level/Higher/Advanced Higher and undergraduate students who are looking for work placements in STEM as either a gap year post-A Levels or as a year’s work experience prior to going to university, or during their degree course itself; and it’s paid! Commenting on the programmme, EDT marketing assistant Sahar Attarian said: “Work experiences in the STEM field offer young women the opportunity to build a positive image around STEM-related careers.

This year, 28 per cent of our placements are with females; this is against the national figure of 9 per cent of females in STEM jobs.” Whilst the YINI isn’t gender-specific itself, the companies involved in the programme, and initiatives like it, may well have their own approaches embedded in their recruitment practices, aimed at attracting and recruiting women engineers: a mutually beneficial endeavour. As Sharron Pamplin, HR director at design, engineering and project management consultancy Atkins, UK & Europe, explains: “We are working hard to overcome the perception that engineering is a man’s world and highlight the variety of exciting careers at Atkins. This isn’t just an altruistic bid to help society; we believe it’s a commercially astute one too. A diverse workforce is good for business: it offers a broader range of skills and perspectives and encourages better performance and behaviours. Many of our clients value diversity and we believe that businesses with good gender balance have deeper, more resilient client relationships and grow faster than other companies.”

Corporate culture

Companies that have an embedded inclusion strategy as part of their culture show a healthier gender balance than is seen across the national engineering workforce. As Pamplin comments: “We’ve set ourselves the challenge of trying to increase the number of females on work-placement schemes year on year. This year we’ve managed to increase ours from 31 per cent to 35 per cent. We’re pleased that this continues to move us in the right direction for gender parity.”

Likewise, independent design, engineer, consultancy and technical specialist firm Arup ascribes its high number of women employees as being down to its unique company culture. It firmly believes in positive action for all employees as opposed to gender targeting and its subtler approach is producing dividends, as HR officer Sally Rhodes explains: “We are committed to having a workforce that’s as diverse as possible. Out of our graduate recruitment programme for this year 48 per cent are female. We don’t do positive discrimination, but Arup is very much a family-friendly, flexible and relaxed type of organisation and I think this makes us more approachable. We have a reputation of being equitable and fair, and we promote diversity and family-friendly working. We also have quite a flat structure, with a less defined hierarchy which attracts a certain type of person. I think all of these things are subliminal, but are all part and parcel of what makes Arup attractive to females.”

Across Arup UK, women make up 32.7 per cent of the workforce, as Rhodes adds: “And the benefits of this to Arup? Having a more balanced workforce encourages and promotes more varied and creative thinking, and is more representative of the world outside. This is about being the best that we can be as an organisation.” So, if we’re to increase the 9 per cent, promoting the value of work placements is an important step in the right direction, as well as supporting young women engineers in making informed career choices, giving them real-world experience and insight, and helping them to reach their full potential, while at the same time helping to fix that leaking pipeline.

By Kate Parker

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