Girls in STEM: the importance of diversifying engineering teams

Carl Ennis, chief executive of Siemens plc, talks about the need for more parity in engineering

The UK’s low-carbon economy, in which young people are taking such a driving interest, is now worth more than £200bn, almost four times the size of the country’s manufacturing sector, with growth expected to accelerate in the coming years. We desperately need to convert the enthusiasm of young people for a greener economy into obtaining the qualifications for working in the sector.

In the last decade, despite schools achieving a welcome 21% increase in acceptances to engineering courses at UK universities, up from 25,995 in 2011 to 31,545 in 2020, we are still woefully short of meeting the projected annual demand for 124,000 engineers and technicians, alongside an additional need for 79,000 ‘related’ roles requiring a mixed application of engineering knowledge alongside other skill sets.

Engineering has always been a profession of great diversity with a variety of fields. While the primary duty of analysing, developing and evaluating large-scale, complex systems hasn’t really changed, how this is carried out has changed in dramatic fashion in the last decade, thanks to technology.

Engineers used to design and draft blueprints, implement products and systems in the field and manage projects, without the help of high-performance computers and IT tools. The advent of mobile devices and high-speed internet has completely reshaped the way engineers work today. Their key tool is as likely to be a tablet and software as a drawing board or a spanner, though there will always be a nut to tighten somewhere, and the thrill of being part of a team that problem-solves and creates a beautiful wind turbine and installs it in the challenging environment of the North Sea or the satisfaction of commissioning a recycling plant.

… in STEM-related fields like engineering, science and technology, women account for just 24% of the workforce

Are we inadvertently closing the door to hundreds of thousands of teenagers who are disregarding STEM careers because of stereotypical ways of thinking about jobs and careers labelled ‘engineering’ or ‘technology’ and, in so doing, losing a rich seam of diversity of thought?

In a world where the UK needs people with Level 3+ engineering skills, it is vital our education programme continues to highlight role models from a diverse variety of identities and backgrounds, increasing the opportunity for young people to see and recognise people like themselves in exciting and challenging careers in the green economy.

For example, in STEM-related fields like engineering, science and technology, women account for just 24% of the workforce. Successful female STEM role models can be inspirational when it comes to reducing self-stereotyping and increasing a feeling of belonging. That’s why Siemens decided to add the ‘SeeMe’ programme to its range of support material for attracting and inspiring potential engineers.

SeeMe comprises a stage show and supporting teacher training resources that present a spotlight on modern STEM female role models within industry. It explores women’s groundbreaking contributions to science, technology and engineering, and identifies the range and scope of careers available within the STEM area.

We see it as vital that education continues to highlight role models from a diverse variety of identities and backgrounds – increasing the opportunity for young people to see and recognise people like themselves in exciting, challenging and rewarding careers.

The best minds?

As the GB&I head of a multinational engineering company, one of my major concerns is whether we are getting the very best minds through the door at Siemens, or are we simply getting a small self-selecting section of society?

More than ever, it’s new thinking that we need in our industry – different perspectives and approaches to problem-solving.

As an employer, I hope we have started doing our part, moving away from male-oriented overalls, safety shoes, goggles and workstations… clothing that’s too big, too cumbersome and, when worked in for a period of time, agonising and potentially dangerous, which, I am proud to say, Siemens identified and rectified a number of years ago.

But rather than simply focus on gender, our approach has been to change things from a ‘safety engineering’ perspective, being inclusive wherever possible and creating an environment in which everyone feels not only comfortable, but safe.

For instance, at our Congleton site, we digitally model new processes in the virtual world to ensure an operator is comfortable and will not suffer when completing an action or task multiple times per day. We’ll model this for operators of all dimensions and statures. We also look to structure our entry programmes to suit different aspirations and needs through apprenticeships, degree apprenticeships (which was my own route into the company), graduate intake, internships and internal education and development.
This is about creating a culture of inclusiveness and, ultimately, empathy. Leaders of schools and companies and the parents of children all have the task of creating the right conditions for ideas to flourish, for people to feel empowered and to remove as many as possible of the barriers that may hold back or stifle innovation.

If our young talent can’t bring their whole selves to work, then we’ll only ever solve half the problems we’re faced with. And a society that excludes a large percentage of voices from the climate challenge will only solve a proportion of it as a result.

We have a monumental challenge in this country in the coming years, and the race is on. But this challenge should fill everyone with great optimism.

We have the opportunity to start changing the statistics and bringing everyone who aspires to contribute to change on board. With every voice in the discussion being heard, we are giving ourselves the best chance of survival on planet earth by building a green industrial revolution, delivering a just transition, and creating a fairer, more equitable society.

You might also like: Climate scientist returns to school to urge girls to pursue STEM

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