Dawn Bonfield MBE, a Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor of Inclusive Engineering at Aston University, is currently researching the identity of women in engineering, considering the professional and social conflicts that can arise and what this means for workforce diversity.
Everyone has a personal identity and a professional identity and for men, there isn’t a conflict between the two – so traditionally, men were engineers and they don’t have a problem with being a ‘man’ and being an ‘engineer’ – the two sides of their identity can happily live together. For women, on the other hand, because they traditionally haven’t been engineers, there’s a conflict between their personal identity as a woman and their professional identity as an engineer.
That can manifest itself in making women feel often that they have to choose between these identities. In many cases if you ask female engineers whether they want to be identified as a woman, they will refuse; they’re not interested in joining women’s groups for example, because they want to be seen as an engineer first and their identity as a woman sometimes gets side-lined or even left behind.
The danger of losing diversity
That’s really damaging to the profession for a number of reasons, such as stopping women from entering the profession and also, for those women in the profession, it prevents them from looking at projects from their perspective as a woman. That means we lose the diversity that they would otherwise bring into the profession.
From my research, I’ve heard of women who try to disguise their identity as an engineer when they’re with their social group, perhaps describing themselves as a designer instead – because that’s more acceptable. Not fitting in in either your personal or professional sphere or both, can be very tiring in the long term.
Impact on attracting and retaining skilled workers
We talk a lot about people being unable to bring their whole selves to work if they feel that they don’t fit in – whether that’s because they’re LGBT, or women not being able to be a woman and talk about their children and how they’ll be going to sports day or picking them up after school, or about other caring responsibilities. Disguising those things that they do as a woman, either because they’re perceived as trivial or because they don’t have a place in the engineering workplace, can be damaging for women. But it can be equally as damaging for men, who then feel that they cannot bring their family life to work, which perpetuates the cycle.
That has a significant impact for women returning to the workplace after having children of course, and the loss of skills that that brings. For example, 57% of professionally qualified women opt out of engineering under the age of 40-45, whereas the figure for men is around 17%. As an industry, we can’t sustain that. However, if you feel that you have to hide your identity and can’t talk about your family, when the time comes when you need time off or to work more flexible, that conversation is incredibly difficult. There’s a huge opportunity for organisations to adjust their culture to retain these women and the skills they have. And, let’s not forget, that these are the ambassadors for the profession who can be seen at the school gates combining both identities.
Building a richer profession
What it also does, is lead to a lack of female role models for tomorrow’s engineers. Even at the highest levels, personal identities are subsumed beneath the professional. The Rolls Royce Museum celebrates great feats of engineering and showcases different engines, but the people who were instrumental in the firm’s history are hidden. Including, unfortunately, the sister of the founder of the company, who established the Women’s Engineering Society.
Looking through the lenses of different identity is more than just ticking a box. It’s crucial to ensuring that our engineering products are widely applicable, less biased, and more inclusive of different people’s perspectives so that they reflect your audience or customers. We can only do that by being inclusive, bringing our whole selves to the profession and encouraging others to do the same. The whole profession would be richer if we were able to bring in the totality of people’s identities.
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