/ 8 August 2022

Women bright sparks needed in electrical and electronic engineering

As our society becomes more technology driven, the demand for skilled workers in the fields of science technology, engineering and maths (Stem) increases. Unsurprisingly, numerous countries have invested in higher education, encouraging the pursuit of formal education in these fields. 

A popular Stem field, in which prospective students are actively pursuing a career, is engineering with admission numbers going up annually. With the increased interest, the female representation grew slowly and steadily in the early 2000s across all the engineering disciplines. 

However, the numbers have plateaued in recent years. This is most notable in the field of electrical and electronic engineering, where less than 15% of the already small pool of female engineering graduates remains in the discipline globally. 

By comparison, female representation in science and all engineering disciplines in Europe is over 40%. There are initiatives which encourage girls to enter the engineering field in their primary years of schooling and, although this exposure is necessary, their choice of career is predominantly influenced and decided at secondary and tertiary education level. 

On Women’s Day (9 August) and during Women’s Month, we should again remind ourselves that with females representing almost 50% of the global population, it is logical to encourage their participation in the workforce to enhance the quality of living of all people. Although more women are entering electrical and electronic engineering undergraduate programmes, and the engineering profession when they graduate, female engineers are more likely to leave the discipline than their male counterparts.

The electrical and electronic engineering discipline is multi-dimensional with many career options. From designing energy power plants to creating the latest computing software, this field is framing humanity’s future. However, young women often have limited knowledge about the career options available and might see the lack of female role models in the discipline as a red flag. Many female engineering graduates also end up questioning where all the senior female engineers have gone.

The engineering discipline is demanding and challenging for both men and women; however, some challenges are felt more heavily by female employees. These include gender discrimination, sociocultural limitations, marital and parental constraints, self-imposed limitations, to name just a few. Numerous women engineers have reported a sense of exclusion in the workplace, lack of growth opportunities and not enough support for career advancement. 

It is important for society as a whole to encourage and motivate inclusivity, especially in the workplace. Often, inclusivity is solidified in a company’s culture, where it breeds confidence and a sense of belonging. Women frequently experience a negative workplace environment due to the stigma of only being hired to fill a quota. Ironically, this is brought about by the hiring regulations and policies that aim to increase inclusivity. However, the introduction of inclusion policies does not equate to the hiring of unqualified engineers, nor should it take away from the candidate’s merit. The company’s culture should create an environment where new female employees feel included and valued despite regulatory quota mandates. 

The company culture is often set by its leaders who should instil trust and the certainty that, regardless of quota, all new employees are qualified and well-suited for their specific roles. This leadership approach helps to eliminate the feeling of inferiority for new woman employees. This will also help eradicate the notion that men generally deliver better results in engineering tasks and it will empower women to step into their roles with confidence. Feeling valued, included and confident in your work breeds increased productivity, quality and overall job satisfaction which, in turn, helps with employee retention.

Increased awareness about career opportunities and personal stories of successful engineers can go a long way in generating interest for young women to join the discipline. A positive testimony often creates a longer-lasting effect than reading about possible career choices in a higher education pamphlet. This places a responsibility on engineers, who are satisfied in their work environments, to mentor and inspire the younger generation to enter the field and help change gender-based stereotypes. 

It is also important to promote healthy excitement and anticipation for growth. Everyone wants to grow, both personally and professionally. Companies have the chance to create a healthy workplace environment of growth and support. This environment should ensure all employees have the same opportunities for career advancement and are awarded for excellent performance. This also means that the parental role of women must be acknowledged and that the workplace should not dictate personal and family aspirations. These concepts should be mutually exclusive, where the one does not have to conflict or contend with the other. 

Creating work environments that celebrate a work-life balance leads to an increase in participation and productivity. This allows women employees and mothers to feel safe in their role and in the workplace. Job satisfaction is invaluable and is often the reason employees stay with a company and in the engineering field as a whole. 

Women face multiple barriers that inhibit entry into the engineering field of study and the engineering industry. By implementing policies and approaches over time, we could make it easier for women to become engineers. This will also increase and promote gender parity in the field. 

While better access to information and role models can encourage females to study engineering, work-life balance and mentorship are key to enhancing their participation and retention in the sector. This will also improve their chances of attaining leadership positions. Support structures throughout their studies and careers can create opportunities for women to network and increase their own participation in the engineering profession. 

It shouldn’t be left to women to dismantle stereotypes and remove barriers. Men can also provide a valuable voice to help encourage and enforce change for women. By working together, we can increase the number of women engineers.

Dr Karen Garner and Dr Chantelle van Staden are lecturers in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Stellenbosch University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.