As skills shortages emerge in the engineering and technology sectors, access to potential engineers must be addressed, writes Engineers Ireland policy officer Keelan Keogh.

Gender diversity has been a historical issue in engineering in Ireland and internationally. Women remain an untapped resource within the engineering profession. It is challenging to encourage women to pursue careers in engineering, and it's equally challenging to retain them in the field.

There is a need for a much larger and more diverse workforce. It has never been more important to inspire and encourage more people, especially young women, to study engineering at third level and choose a career in engineering.

Primary and post-primary education

Studies show encouraging children into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) must start as young as five. A survey of Engineers Ireland members found that 86% of engineers believe parents, teachers and career guidance counsellors can do more to break down the societal barriers to girls studying engineering-related subjects.

The survey also found that more than half believed that outdated attitudes, among both women and men generally, are still obstacles to women entering the engineering sector.

Conscious and unconscious bias needs to be addressed among teachers, parents and, indeed, wider society. Training and unconscious bias workshops would be helpful.

That said, it is positive to note that the number of young women studying STEM subjects has been increasing in recent years to the extent that most of those taking higher-level mathematics for the Junior Certificate are women. However, there is a significant gender imbalance in subjects relating to science (other than biology at about 60%), technology and engineering.

Higher and further education

At third level, women constitute just 18% of engineering graduates, with figures remaining consistent over the past five years (Fig.1). While the figures at postgraduate level are more positive, a major gender imbalance continues to exist.

Furthermore, female participation in apprenticeships has been increasing. Of the 8,600 state-funded apprentices, 17% are now women. An increase on the percentage of female apprentices from 0.3% in 2018. The increase of females must be inline with the focus on increasing apprenticeships.

Engineers Ireland and STEPS

The Engineers Ireland STEPS Programme is a non-profit outreach programme that promotes interest and awareness in engineering as a future career to students in all communities by enhancing the visibility of STEM role models and through a portfolio of projects, including the STEPS Young Engineers Award, STEPS Engineering Your Future, STEPS Engineers Week, and the STEPS Girl Guides Badges.

Several STEPS programmes have elements that aim to introduce engineering to girls of primary and secondary school age. STEPS “Engineering Your Future” is an engineering experience programme designed to inspire Transition Year students to study engineering.

STEPS targets a 30% female participation rate in our STEPS EYF programmes hosted by third-level institutes and industries around Ireland. STEPS Guides Engineering Badges have been developed in partnership with the Irish Girl Guides, which aims to introduce girls to engineering and to support Girl Guide Leaders to communicate diverse opportunities in engineering. 

In the workplace

Less than 25% of the 120,000-plus people working in STEM-related professions in Ireland are women. Many female engineers have serious concerns regarding promotion to senior levels and pay; for example, male engineers are almost twice as likely to work in senior management compared to female engineers.

Men and women need to be given the same opportunities. Companies must encourage both women and men to step forward for opportunities and provide a
clear career development path for all of their employees, including membership of company boards.

A core component of increasing the number of female engineers will be to improve working conditions for both men and women currently in the industry.

Engineering workplaces should be inclusive and encouraged to institute family-friendly policies on childcare, leave, hybrid working and flexible working packages where possible.

These policies can be highlighted as company attractions. Engineers Ireland has 14% female representation in its membership. To support this section of the membership, Engineers Ireland established the Women in Engineering Group in 2021.

The group’s mission is to support women, pre and post-graduation (including those returning from a career break), who have chosen to pursue a career in engineering so as to develop their skills and competencies and fully realise their potential in and out of the workplace. Since its formation, the group has focused their attention on three main areas:

  • Attracting more female students into engineering courses.
  • Keeping the women who have already chosen engineering careers in engineering.
  • Getting women who have qualified as engineers and left the profession to return.

To achieve this the Women in Engineering Group have created a network through online and in-person events to support women in the engineering industry. 

Key actions to retain women in STEM careers

Implementing these actions would go a long way to attracting and retaining female engineers – these female engineers then play a vital role as role models for young women considering a career in engineering.

  1. Advance women’s leadership and participation in decision-making – locally and nationally
  2. Through Gender Pay Gap reporting, employers should be encouraged to identify the causes of gender pay gaps and to create action plans to address areas where women are over/ under-represented in their organisation.
  3. Promote family-friendly STEM workplaces and manage work-life balance.
  4. Strengthen social protection, training and employment supports such as return to work programmes, upskilling, part-time work and hybrid working.