A new report by the UCD Engineering Graduates Association (EGA) shows that only 20% of third-level engineering students in Ireland are female. The report, entitled Towards Gender Balance in Engineering, also revealed that within the engineering profession at large, women make up only around 10%. “With a male-female ratio of 9:1, women largely remain an untapped resource in our profession,” said chartered engineer Regina Moran, Fujitsu Ireland CEO and Engineers Ireland president, at the launch of the report on Thursday, 30 October. “We must find ways of attracting more girls to join forces with us and tackle some of the world’s greatest issues. Professions such as medicine and law can’t tackle issues such as climate change and population growth – we need to stress that girls can change the world for the better through engineering.” “This is an enormous loss to the Irish economy – especially the manufacturing sector – as pharma, food, IT and biomedical engineering products are what’s driving the export economy,” said PJ Rudden, EGA president. “At a time when our economy is starting to recover, the gender imbalance means Ireland is missing the creativity, innovation and marketing skills of female engineers. It’s no longer acceptable to consider 'the norm of 10% to 20%' as adequate in such a challenging profession that has such a critical role in the economy.” The report presented general research into the representation of women in the engineering profession and also specific findings in relation to engineering in UCD, before making recommendations as to how address gender imbalance. It considered three different phases: pre-engineering education (primary and secondary), engineering education (third level) and profession/career.

Ability, opportunity and motivation

[caption id="attachment_17310" align="alignright" width="448"]UCD EGA 2 Michael Loughnane[/caption] “There are three main reasons behind the career choices that people make: ability, opportunity and motivation,” said electrical engineer Michael Loughnane, one of the authors of the report and manager of organisational development at ESB*. “There’s no discernible difference in the ‘ability’ of young men compared to young women that might contribute to the gender imbalance. Nor is there any evidence in relation to different levels of ‘opportunity’, with the vast majority of girls’ and mixed schools now offering Higher-Level Maths, for instance. “The key issue appears to be ‘motivation’. In the US, the Society of Women Engineers reported that one in four women who enter engineering have left the profession after age 30, compared to one in ten male engineers – what we call the ‘leaky pipeline’. There’s little evidence that family responsibilities cause more women to leave engineering compared with other professions, although the research is limited. Yet, there’s something about engineering, and other male-dominated fields, that deters women. All engineers have to take responsibility for this.” Loughnane said that if female participation in engineering increased, a tipping point would be reached – generally regarded as 30-35% – at which the perspectives of both groups, and the character of relations between them, would begin to change qualitatively. “This is the critical mass at which sustainable change can be achieved,” he said. “In UCD, the highest-ever number of female engineering students was in 2007-2008, when they comprised almost 25%, but this has slipped back to 20% again.” The number of women in engineering education in Ireland is also circa 20% (for level 8 degrees). This figure reaches 27% nationally for all universities across all engineering, manufacturing and construction courses.

Report recommendations

[caption id="attachment_17313" align="alignright" width="448"]Orla Feely Orla Feely[/caption] Towards Gender Balance in Engineering makes a number of specific recommendations, but is wary of gender targets, which it says has “both beneficial and negative consequences, and can affect self-confidence and self-worth of those chosen under such strategies”. It recommends that engineering should be highlighted as a path to broadening horizons, bearing in mind that 20% of Fortune 500 CEOs hold an undergraduate degree in engineering. The EGA authors recommend a reconfiguration of STEM subjects in girls’ and mixed secondary schools and a greater awareness among parents, teachers and career-guidance professionals of the exciting and challenging careers that await female school-leavers should they choose to study engineering. “We need to market UCD engineering more strategically,” said Loughnane. “We must get the right information to the right influencers. It’s also important to use social media optimally, so that engineering is seen as an exciting career choice among student peers.” The authors also suggest a rebranding of UCD engineering programmes. “For example, the mention of ‘energy’ has resulted in increased interest in our programmes. UCD engineering’s marketing team should also carry out a review of the subjects on offer to girls in secondary school and the Engineering Open Day should have a dedicated 'module' focusing on women in the profession.” The report recommends the creation of an initiative called ‘Getting Women into Engineering @ UCD, which would involve the ‘recruitment’ of high-profile female engineers to act as ambassadors for engineering at schools events. “UCD EGA also intends to collaborate closely with Engineers Ireland in a joint effort to highlight the importance of engineering to the Irish economy and also promote a greater involvement with Engineers Ireland’s STEPS volunteering programme, which reached approximately 56,000 students last year,” said Loughnane. For its part, Engineers Ireland hosted an interactive career event in Dublin on 8 October for over 240 schoolgirls. The first of its kind, the event aimed to inspire young women to consider engineering as a career or a third-level option as Ireland faces a shortage of skilled engineering talent. In addition, in spring of this year, the professional body repeated its TV advertisement highlighting the varied career options in engineering, with the advert featuring a number of female chartered engineer

Female engineers as role models

[caption id="attachment_17312" align="alignright" width="448"]Regina Moran Regina Moran[/caption] Regina Moran echoed the need for more female engineers to act as role models. “Alice Perry was the first female engineering graduate in Ireland and Britain in 1906, but we still haven’t made enough progress over 100 years later. As the third female president of Engineers Ireland, my predecessors Jane Grimson and Anne Butler have been a huge influence. “To attract more girls into engineering and to keep women within the profession, we must foster a sense of inclusion and that’s up to all of us. To get to the 35% tipping point for sustainable change, we have to touch hearts as well as minds,” she added. Also speaking at the launch of the UCD report was Prof Orla Feely, UCD vice president for research, innovation and impact. She emphasised the importance of engineering, citing the transformative power of relatively recent developments such as computers, biomedical devices and innovative pharmaceutical treatments. “Ireland’s position at the forefront of these sectors means that our influence is disproportionate to our size. We must stay at the leading edge to remain competitive, but we’re not drawing upon all the female talent at our disposal. Also, women aren’t being properly represented in these areas of engineering that are so important to our economy and, indeed, to the whole world. “It comes down to fairness – if we don’t convey the attractiveness and importance of engineering, we’re failing young girls. We’re also failing women if they aren’t being supported to stay within the sector.” Feely pointed out that the 1980s saw the first significant increase of female engineers, and women who entered engineering at that stage – such as Regina Moran, Ann Kelleher (vice president of Intel’s Technology and Manufacturing Group) and Dr Patricia Kieran (senior lecturer, UCD School of Chemical and Bioprocess Engineering) – are now in a position to influence girls considering a career in engineering. “We have some other advantages now that we must maximise,” she continued. “Firstly, the next generation of engineers are already very familiar with technology. Computers and smartphones have always been part of their lives – they’ll be more open to careers in this area and less intimidated by, and more interested in, the latest technology. We can also reach them directly through social media. “We have a window of opportunity just now. Even over the last 12 months, there has been an extraordinary array of Irish women appointed to senior positions in Ireland and internationally. If we get a concerted push to highlight how women can build hugely successful and rewarding careers in this sector, I think we should be able to make considerable headway,” Feely concluded. *The other authors of ‘Towards Gender Balance in Engineering’ were mechanical engineer Ann Fingleton (senior engineer with Fingleton White), civil engineer Louise McGuinness (graduate engineer with AECOM) and electrical engineer Killian McKenna (PhD postgrad in UCD). All authors are members of the UCD EGA Board.