Breaking down gender barriers in technology and engineering
International Women in Engineering Day is always an opportunity to celebrate those inspiring women who are thriving in the engineering industry, breaking down gender barriers along the way. But it is also a reminder that a lot more needs to be done to reach true gender equality in engineering and technology.
Considering that only 19% of all STEM graduates are reported to be women, the deficit in gender diversity is most likely rooted in a lack of education. This is hardly surprising given the perceived lack of female role models in science and technology.
For example, professional services brand PwC found that a whopping 78% of students struggled to name a famous woman working in technology. Data from the same survey found that as a result, only 3% of girls reported that a career in technology was their first choice.
As such, experts shared their experiences and what they think can be done to improve gender diversity in the industry:
Education as a starting point
For many girls, the first hurdle they face is in education. Often, STEM subjects are presented as a preserve for men, and girls are missing out on the opportunity presented by tech. For Stacey Moser, chief commercial officer at Universal Robots, she said: “We need to equip the next generation of women to be ready to accelerate technology further and this needs to be addressed at grassroots level to make a real difference.”
Andra Buica, senior solutions engineer, DU and AI at UiPath, is also a firm believer that schools and early education has a crucial role to play. She said: “By exposing children from early ages towards all different paths they could take in life, they’ll make their own choice based on broader knowledge of what they can achieve, no matter their gender!
“Encouraging girls and women to pursue tech and engineering education equips them with skills that are increasingly in demand. It opens doors to a wide range of career opportunities, promotes adaptability, and enhances their future employability.”
This is echoed by Karen Worstell, senior cybersecurity strategist at VMware Security: “Educational institutions play a key role in fostering a supportive environment to provide access to people across all socio-economic levels regardless of gender, ethnicity or geography.”
Demonstrating the variety of roles available to women will be key to making this shift. Renske Galema, area vice president (VP) Northern Europe at CyberArk, adds: “School-going girls need to be told that there are a variety of career options open to them – and they need access to role models in STEM who are paving the way. They need to know that STEM subjects are not ‘heavy lifting’ for girls!”
Creating a culture that values women’s contributions
Supporting women into the industry needs to span beyond just encouraging them to study STEM subjects in school. For Alice Tome-Fernandez, senior applications scientist at Automata, organisations need create environments where women feel they belong: “Developing a workplace culture that values and empowers women is crucial for their visibility, respect, and safety.”
And businesses stand to benefit from increased gender diversity, as pointed out by Julie Kae, VP of sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and executive director at Qlik. She said: “People must bring their unique perspective to the table to create the most innovative and successful outcome.
“Women in Engineering Day is a celebration of the unique skills that women bring to the table in order to solve problems. Women are over half the world’s population so our perspective is absolutely needed and valuable.”
Eve Maler, chief technology officer at ForgeRock, suggests that businesses create inclusive environments by giving women opportunities to freely share their thoughts: “My recommendation for business leaders is to encourage open forums where employees have both the freedom and the responsibility to contribute to ideation and, importantly, where everyone is welcome at the table.”
Elsewhere, businesses are putting into place training so they are better placed to support women in their roles. Sue-Ellen, managing director of aerospace defence and security at Sopra Steria, said: “We introduced a Women’s Inclusive Network (WIN), training to change gender-related representations and mentoring schemes to support women in their career development.”
Establishing strong female role models
For some, finding their place in the industry requires seeing other women leading the way. Caroline Vignollet, senior vice president (SVP) of research and development (R&D) at OneSpan, argued: “I think people forget the toll and the unintended consequences a lack of representation and role models can have on those in the industry, especially when starting their careers.
“When first starting out, a lot of women lack confidence in themselves and their place in the industry. We forget that we deserve to be there.”
Similar experiences are felt by Kelly Hills, former software engineer at TD Bank and Pluralsight author, who said: “When I started my career as a junior software engineer, I was seriously struggling with imposter syndrome, and I know it’s a common challenge faced by many women in an industry still dominated by men. A lack of female role models often led me to worry I was unworthy of a place at the table.”
Having strong role models serves to inspire women that they can achieve the same. And for Shawna Wolverton, chief product officer at Benchling, more are emerging: “Science feels like it’s further along in female leadership nowadays.
“I show up at customers’ offices and round tables, and I’m seeing a really high representation of women in biotech. This is promising as so much about how you get more representation in a field is about seeing those leaders at the top.”
Building support networks
A large part of helping women make the move into tech roles is helping them build the confidence with the support of a female network.
This resonates with Afiya Chohollo, VP of engineering and technical program management at Onfido. She said: “I would encourage women interested in pursuing engineering or other STEM careers to connect with others in their industry to hear and learn from their experiences. Building your network and people you know can create mentorships that last a lifetime, sponsoring you as you grow.”
“A big part of getting more women and girls into engineering roles is creating the pathways for them to do so” argued Laurie Haley, VP of strategic alliances at Veracode. “Part of my journey has been finding support in communities such as the Executive Women’s Forum, dedicated to women in tech and engineering, and through this group, I’m now acting as a mentor to other professionals entering the sector.”
Thriving from diversity
Challenging traditional paths to careers in tech is another way we can support women to take up positions. For Yvonne Kiely, head of advisory Europe at Avanade, “Too great an emphasis is put on employees having a corresponding education to the industry they’re applying for.
“Instead, businesses must re-evaluate the traditional way to employment through higher education and academic prowess – and see it isn’t always the right approach. Updating routes into engineering will go a long way to break down barriers”.
“Our hiring approach needs to be inclusive in the first place, ensuring we are seeking and employing candidates who add the cultural diversity of a business rather than fit within it”, adds Sook Meng Muk, Senior Director of Engineering at Matillion.
“This is only truly possible if engineering teams and the wider organisation are educated on the influence of unconscious bias, so that we continue to make strides in degressing from stereotyping perceptions.”
Setting women up for success
All in all, the industry stands to gain huge value from bringing more women into the industry and leaders have a responsibility to make this a reality. Marianne Calder, VP Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) partner sales at Genesys reiterates this: “The tech industry is highly innovative, dynamic and truly global, so it makes for fantastic careers in all aspects of business for women who are open minded and want to make an impact.
“It is everyone’s collective responsibly in the industry to support them in making this possible.”
The benefits are clear from both sides – Renee Tarum, deputy chief information security officer (CISO) at Fortinet, adds: “Data has found that female-led tech companies have performed better, with women CEOs in the Fortune 1000 driving three times the returns as S&P 500 enterprises run predominantly by their male counterparts.”
Although there is a long way to go to achieve complete gender diversity in technology and engineering, there are signs that we are moving in the right direction. If young women today have the above role models to aspire to, and they understand the importance of early education, the future looks brighter for women in technology and engineering.