The 'gender balance in engineering' Academic Society webinar took place in late 2021.
- Beatrice Smyth, senior lecturer in sustainable energy systems, School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Queen’s University Belfast
- Reena Cole, lecturer in mechanical engineering and assistant dean academic affairs, Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Limerick
- Patrick Flynn, head of learning development, College of Engineering and Built Environment, TU Dublin
- Bryan Hennelly, associate professor, Department of Electronic Engineering, Maynooth University
- Michelle Looby, senior lecturer in engineering, Department of Engineering, TU Dublin – Blanchardstown Campus
Diversity makes sense. Not only is it the 'right' thing to do, but it helps a company’s bottom line. Recent research has shown that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity had financial returns 15% higher than the national industry median, while companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity faired even better, with returns 30% above the median.
Diverse teams have higher collective intelligence, but worryingly only 13% of engineering graduates are women. Tapping into this potential and improving diversity and gender balance are key issues for the development of the engineering sector.
This Engineers Ireland Academic Society webinar on Gender Balance in Engineering was held on November 26, 2021. It sought to foster discussion and share best practice on initiatives, ranging from those implemented for primary school children right through to third level and professional practice.
Reaching out to schools
Changing perceptions of engineering from a young age was a theme raised by several of the speakers. Marion McAfee of IT Sligo (now ATU Sligo) spoke about how they are working to change public misconceptions of engineering, such as opinions that there is a 'girl’s brain' versus a 'boy’s brain'.
Motivated by the desire to improve the gender balance in undergraduate engineering courses, IT Sligo introduced an Engineering Fair in 2018. This annual family event attracts around 2500 visitors each year and is mainly targeted at primary-school age children and their parents (Figure 1).
Positive impact was clear from a survey conducted with children after the event; about half of those surveyed said they would like to be an engineer, and there was little evidence of gender stereotyping by the young attendees.
Figure 1: Sligo Engineering Fair (image courtesy of James Connolly)
McAfee also discussed the 'engineering northwest' initiative for second-level students, which saw 148 first- and second-year students take part in a fan-powered car workshop. While there was excellent reach to students from across the region, a gender disparity was noted, with 79% of males citing interest in engineering after the event, compared to only 45% of females.
Perhaps ideas could be gleaned from another IT Sligo initiative, Shaping Your Future, run by I-Form (the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Manufacturing) in partnership with Irish Manufacturing Research (IMR).
Sylvia Leatham, public engagement manager at I-Form, told us about the initiative, which involved over 100 transition year students from girls’ schools and mixed schools in economically disadvantaged areas.
The students were set a 3D printing and design challenge to improve health in their community and, with a wealth of creativity from all students, the winning team designed a key aid to help a person with a tremor open their front door.
The challenge resulted in improved understanding of engineering and manufacturing among the students, as well as increased appreciation of the importance of engineering to society, a factor which was found to be more important to girls.
Helping second-level students better understand engineering as a career was identified as essential for breaking down barriers to girls studying engineering at third level.
Attracta Foley and Deaglán Campbell of TUS Athlone shared the findings from a survey they did with girls in the midlands. It was found that the girls are ambitious, interested, curious and considered in their thinking around engineering and construction, but they lack confidence, feel pressured by the lack of female counterparts, don’t expect to be valued equivalently and are severely lacking in exposure to professionals working in the industry.
While 30% said that they would be interested in engineering as a career, 85% felt that they didn’t have adequate career guidance for engineering and 65% felt ignored in colleges’ course information on engineering.
Foley and Campbell were joined in the talk by three transition year students from the Convent of Mercy in Roscommon Town, who clearly articulated the lack of information available to them and the hurdles thus presented in understanding engineering as a career option.
By using design logic to understand the problem, they highlighted the importance of industry-academic collaboration in enabling informed decision making for students, parents and teachers.
Michelle Looby and Orla McMahon, TU Dublin, talked about their experiences of industry-academic collaboration in action through the Young Women in Technology Programme (YWIT). With the aims of encouraging female students onto technology programmes, this three-day taster for second-level students involves talks from role models, workshops, and industry visits.
Initially just for transition year students, the initiative was recently extended to sixth class pupils from local schools who are invited to attend the third day of the programme.
Through the programme, which was nominated for the Best Public Service Excellence Award in 2016, the goal is to show the fun and creative side of engineering and to nurture students’ natural creativity. TU Dublin also runs a Coding4Girls summer camp, and they have already seen students who have taken part in the camps transition into related third level courses.
Challenges and developments at third level
Unfortunately, once women enter third level, challenges remain, not least feelings of isolation and of not fitting in. Leslie Shoemaker, TU Dublin, discussed how they had seen many capable women leaving their engineering studies because of such struggles, and how she had introduced the ESTeEM programme to help tackle the issues.
This unique mentoring programme, for women engineering and computing students (ranging from apprentices to undergraduate and postgraduate students), runs annually, with five lunchtime events held every year (Figure 2). Industry mentors (women) are paired with two student mentees and each event involves guest speakers and a mentoring activity.
Student and mentor feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with students reporting improved networking skills and increased confidence. Student retention on the undergraduate programmes is also high for participants.
Figure 2: ESTeEM mentoring event in TU Dublin (image courtesy of Leslie Shoemaker)
Echoing the thoughts of other speakers, Reena Cole of the University of Limerick showed interesting trends in the numbers of women undergraduate students and discussed the reasons behind this.
There are 34% women on the biomedical engineering programme, a degree pathway with clear societal benefits, compared to just 10% doing mechanical engineering, a very similar programme but with different 'branding'.
Overall, there has been an increase in women undergraduates in the School of Engineering from 11.2% in 2016/17 to 15.6% in 2020/21. While still lower than the percentage of women students in the faculty (31%) and university as a whole (50%), the rising trend is promising.
A reason for the increase is thought to be the introduction of common entry engineering, which has 18% women. Common entry engineering gives women students more time to make up their minds on their specific engineering discipline, supporting the findings of TUS Athlone that providing students with more information is crucial.
Interestingly, the part-time flexible learning programmes had 39% female participation in 2020/21, indicating the benefits of these types of programmes in broadening diversity.
Moving to postgraduate studies and the workplace
The journey from undergraduate studies to postgraduate training revealed positive trends in the statistics presented by Reena Cole for the University of Limerick.
Although women represented just 11% of undergraduates in the School of Engineering in 2020/21, they accounted for 15% on taught postgraduate programmes and for more than 30% of the PhD cohort. This shows promise for increasing the number of women in academic posts, which currently stands at under 10% in the School.
The transition from third level to the workplace, be it to academia or professional practice, can be tricky for women graduates. From advertisements to recruitment panels, both unconscious and conscious bias can pose challenges for applicants.
Majella Henchion, a mechanical engineer and technical capability manager with ESB, spoke about efforts within their company to improve diversity and inclusion in graduate recruitment processes. These include using broad channels for advertisements and gender de-coding the wording used; monitoring applicant statistics to identify issues; blind screening; gender-balanced panels; and mandatory interviewer training on unconscious bias.
The focus on cohort persona is also a major part of the strategy – and shows the importance of not just employing the right people, but also of employing the right team.
The webinar speakers and lively discussions raised interesting ideas across the spectrum, from primary schools right through to the workplace, and there were a few recurring themes.
Role models are hugely important at all stages. As is oft quoted: If she can see it, she can be it. Informing potential engineers, as well as their parents and teachers, about engineering as a career is crucial, and tailoring this information to include the benefit of engineering to society could really help to broaden the intake to include more women and indeed a more diverse cohort at third level.
To finish, we’ll paraphrase the words of several of our speakers. Diversity is about differences, seen and unseen. Inclusion is about creating an environment in which people are valued, feel valued and can achieve and contribute their full potential. By leveraging our differences, we can achieve better results for engineering. There’s a lot done and more to do.
There were 83 attendees at the webinar on the day and at the time of writing there had been 160 online views. The delegates came from all over the island of Ireland with other attendees tuning in from the UK, the US and Switzerland.
Attendees included representatives from academia and both the public and private sectors. For anybody interested in listening back to the webinar, a recording is available (above) or on the EI YouTube channel at this link: https://youtu.be/3-b5A7hnbdE.
The webinar was organised by Patrick Flynn (co-chair), Bryan Hennelly (co-chair), Reena Cole (speaker), Michelle Looby (speaker), and Beatrice Smyth (opening remarks). Many thanks to Máirín Ní Aonghusa for the technical support.
The Engineers Ireland Academic Society is a network of academic engineers and engineers in industry with an interest in teaching and learning. Our mission is to promote the professional development of academic engineers and the advancement of academic standards in engineering.
Members share ideas and experiences on career development, the latest teaching and learning methods and the recognition of best practice. Membership of the society is open to anyone who has an interest in the teaching of engineering and we would encourage you to join the Academic Society here.
Author: Beatrice Smyth, senior lecturer in sustainable energy systems, School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Queen’s University Belfast. Email: email@example.com
Attracta Foley sadly passed away in June 2022. We are deeply saddened by her passing and extend our sympathies to her family, friends and colleagues. She was a pillar of the engineering profession and a role model for us all. Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann.