It’s a question that has been occupying many researchers for a long time and has undoubtedly caused many discussions. Why are women so underrepresented in science, technology, and engineering jobs? On 23 June, we celebrate 'International Women in Engineering Day'. It’s the perfect opportunity to reflect on the unequal distribution between men and women and to ask ourselves the question: how can the representation of women in engineering positions increase? After all, how is it possible that women are a minority in technical sectors when half of the working population is female?
Julide Tunali, senior manager in the engineering division at international recruitment firm Robert Walters, highlights some of the most remarkable figures.
"We see a disproportionate balance between men and women in every technical sector, but the difference is the greatest within engineering," says Julide. "About 14% of all engineers in Belgium are women. In a function such as 'civil engineer', women represent just under a quarter of all professionals. But when we look at the profession of 'mechanical engineer', that percentage drops to 11%. Even in sectors with more female engineers, such as the pharmaceutical and retail sectors, where respectively 34% and 31% of engineering positions are held by a woman, the percentage of women is still low.
How come fewer women are choosing to work in engineering? According to Julide, there are several explanations for this. For example, she believes that too little is done in primary and secondary schools to support girls and make students aware of the unequal distribution. "At school, or just in general, there is still too often the misconception that boys are better at maths and logical thinking. Schools don’t do enough to eliminate this misconception. There is a general shortage of professionals in STEM professions. By introducing students - both boys and girls - to technical fields of study and professions at an early age, we can hopefully turn those numbers around."
Nowadays, more and more students in secondary education are opting for a STEM track. Unfortunately, this does not yet automatically translate into choosing an engineering discipline in higher education. Julide: "In most studies in higher education, girls are well represented, and the percentage is around 50%. But in engineering disciplines, that figure is much lower. According to recent figures from KU Leuven, 17% of civil engineering students are female. In the working environment, these figures are very similar. Of all the Civil Engineers working in Belgium, 17% are women."
These figures are obviously far too low. "Nevertheless, there is a positive trend going on," Julide continues. "According to KU Leuven, the percentage of female civil engineer-architect trainees is considerably higher. Just over half of the students following this course are women and a considerable proportion of them actually ends up working as civil engineer-architects. The position of civil engineer-architect is therefore a fine example of how things can be done differently."
Last school year, more than a third of all students in general secondary education (ASO) chose to follow STEM. In the third grade of ASO, about half of the students in a STEM track were girls. We also see promising figures in other countries. According to the British Labor Force survey, the share of women in engineering has grown faster than in other sectors. In India, half of IT engineers are women. This is partly because girls there are introduced to sciences at a younger age and because there are fewer prejudices."
With the increasing popularity of STEM disciplines, the professional engineering landscape will hopefully change soon. It is now up to secondary schools to encourage girls who follow a STEM track and to pursue an engineering track in higher education. That way, we can hopefully increase the gender diversity in engineering disciplines. But there is still a long way to go…
"Making students more aware of the unequal proportion can encourage them to choose scientific fields of study more often. There is also a need for more female role models within the engineering sector, because they can inspire and encourage female students to take a similar career path. After all, an engineering degree offers many opportunities. From research positions to a profession in the management of an organisation. On top of that, the diploma equals a high job security and a good salary," Julide concludes.
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