Women in Engineering and the Importance of Mentoring

” Follow your engineering instinct and see where it will take you”

Dr. Barnali Ghosh, FICE 

As a woman who studies Civil Engineering at university, I can say that I have seen a clear lack of female representation in engineering. In my first year there were 6 girls on my course (civil engineering) out of around 35 which is about 17% female. Due to a range or different circumstances, the class size has shrunk (both male and female). However, I am now the only girl on my course (1/15 = 6.66% female). This attrition rate is also seen in the graduate world, where 40% of female engineers change industry, compared to only 25% of male engineers changing career path. On International Women’s Day 2021, I must ask ‘why is this?’.

From the UK’s Engineering report in 2018, only 12.37% of engineers are women. Although engineering is an interesting and fulfilling career, barriers still remain to women studying and entering the profession. Often beginning as early as primary school; and manifesting itself during the important years of high school (when subjects are chosen).

Women at a young age are much more likely to consider jobs in engineering than that of those leaving high school.

  • 46.4% of girls 11-14 would consider a career in engineering, compared to 70.3% of boys
  • 42.0% of girls 14-16 would consider a career in engineering compared to 66.0% of boys
  • 25.4% of girls 16-18 would consider a career in engineering compared to 51.9% of boys

(Women in Engineering Society-wes 2019)

This indicates the importance of reaching girls of all ages to support and encourage their career ambitions for working within STEM fields. This is why I personally volunteer as a STEM Ambassador, to reach and inspire more girls into the profession. I have attended and run events for “Girls Into Engineering” and career talks, where I have discussed my experiences in Civil Engineering, the subjects and coursework I have studied; along with extra-curricular experiences and the exciting places a career in Civil Engineering could lead.

Society is changing but not quickly enough. It has been seen especially in the year of 2020 through the mentality of reacting to a pandemic; to the BLM movement; and to the lack of action against climate change. In terms of gender stereotypes, I do think we are starting to move away from blue and pink, and trucks and barbies. I was lucky to grow up with 3 brothers as I learnt to ignore the gender stereotypes from a young age. I remember being teased about how I should be inside playing with dolls instead of being out in the dirt, but I did not care. I remember being teased for wearing make-up for the first time and that is when I learnt you cannot please anyone but yourself. So, I wore make-up and played in the dirt. I did what made me feel included and I had fun just like my brothers!

In a way, I was lucky to grow up with three brothers as it fast tracked my ability to be resilient against seemingly harmless jokes that perpetuate female inferiority. Though they may not come from a malicious place, they do propagate inequality into our society and confidence issues for women in the workplace. From a young age, I learnt how to include myself in group activities and speak up despite being the only girl in a family of boys. These experiences may have contributed to my personality and given me skills to work in a male dominated field that other women might not have had. However, this should not need to be the case. I do not want other girls to have to endure these types of experiences in order to become “resilient” to it. As more women begin to speak up, we are able to pass on knowledge of ways to approach and overcome obstacles in a more lasting and impressionable way.

This year I began participating in a female mentoring scheme organised by Margi Vilnay in partnership with Equate Scotland at the University of Dundee. This involves amazing volunteering from women already working as engineers in the industry to individually mentor each of the female students at the University of Dundee.

Research has shown that appropriate mentoring is a mechanism proven to recruit and retain more women in engineering.

  • Additionally, in the context of higher education, it has been found that women who were assigned a female mentor experienced more belonging, motivation, and confidence in engineering, better retention in and greater engineering career aspirations.
  • Female role models improve students’ performance and retention by reducing concerns about representing one’s group in a stereotyped domain.
  • Exposure to a relevant role models increases career motivation and academic and career aspirations.

This mentoring program thoughtfully matched the students with women working in the field of civil engineering sector they are interested in. The mentors are there to provide practical insights not only to the potential career opportunities, but also be able to help with practical preparation for job applications (such as CV, interview skills etc.).

Additionally, in order to encourage women into studying engineering at university, each mentee is encouraged to deliver outreach activities to schools, with the aim of providing female engineering role models to school children.

For me, I was thrilled to receive a mentor who is involved in a geotechnical specialty and has a strong aspiration for mentoring and has had much experience in her profession. The workshops have been delivered by Equate Engagement Coordinator Sara Orr Saiz, who brings such passion and enthusiasm for developing young women to be the best they can be in the profession. Our workshops have been a way to connect to other women across different stages of our degree, connect over similar stories and discuss ways to improve our approach in male dominated fields.

I have great faith in this mentoring scheme for future years and feel the real, strong need for it in our university and across the world. I have been thrilled to be part of a group who shares the same passion and desire for female mentoring and equality in the field.  Now I know the importance and benefit of women coming together and passing down knowledge, experience and expertise for future generations. I am excited to go into industry and become a mentor for future female engineers to help them succeed in the industry.

“Although engineering is an interesting and fulfilling career, there still remain barriers to women studying and entering the profession. Mentoring is a proven mechanism to give students a feeling of belonging, motivation, and confidence in engineering and greater engineering career aspirations. We are delighted to be celebrating International Women in Engineering Day by contributing to practical and positive change.” 

Dr Margi Vilnay, director for public engagement and outreach at the School of Science and Engineering and a lecturer in civil engineering, who initiated the scheme. 
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