It may not be immediately apparent, but a lack of gender diversity (and diversity more broadly) and inclusivity in our industry has a negative impact on all of us, as individuals, as organisations and throughout society more generally. This applies to most engineering domains as well as other industries, not just naval architecture. Here are three examples to illustrate this:
As an industry, we struggle to recruit and retain enough engineers, regardless of whether they are male or female. We cannot afford to exclude up to 50% of our potential workforce, or fail to recruit the high calibre individuals that we need. In order to ensure that we are attracting the best talent to our profession and its related organisations, we need to make sure that we appeal to individuals regardless of their gender.
Diversity of people results in diversity of thought and approach. This allows our teams to tackle problems in a broader way, to consider alternative options and ultimately improve the quality of our outputs and offer better solutions to the challenges we face.
An inclusive working environment allows individuals to deliver their best; if you don’t feel like you belong in a team or the working environment, this can dent your confidence and consequently prevent you from performing at your highest. This impacts both the individual and the team, so it is in everyone’s best interests to make sure that others are comfortable in their working environment.
As engineers we are aware that our industry seeks to solve some of the most pressing problems facing society. We need to develop innovative solutions to these challenges and, to achieve this, we need to be utilising all our resources in the most effective and efficient ways.
It’s perhaps easy to think that a lack of gender diversity in engineering is a problem that women need to solve. However, this is an area where everyone can make a difference, and small, simple actions can make a large difference. A few actions to consider:
• Talk positively about engineering as creative and an inclusive environment with your family and friends, particularly young people who might be considering engineering as a career. I was told as a teenager that engineering was a tough choice for a girl; hopefully comments like that will soon be part of the past. The requirements for entry into an engineering career should not be gender-dependent and we should not be giving the impression that it is more difficult for young women to pursue an engineering career than it is for young men.
Get involved in STEM programmes. These activities help young people learn what engineering is all about, find out if they enjoy and have a talent for the subject and gives us the opportunity to talk positively about our profession (see above). If young people participate in a broad range of STEM activities they can see the diversity of opportunity within engineering. These activities can demonstrate that engineering is a creative subject, focused on problem solving and innovation to counter any impressions of engineering as a dirty, physical profession, which may be less attractive to young women.
Understand that everyone’s experience is different, and can change with time. A few years ago I was the only woman in a large naval architecture department and I found that very isolating. Other women may not have felt that way, but I did. So, don’t assume that a given group of people all think, react and feel the same in a given situation or need/want the same support. If in doubt, ask!
Support the people you work with, regardless of gender. Understand that individuals need training, mentoring, coaching and support. If an individual is feeling excluded from a workplace, then offering mentoring and support may help to bring them into the fold and, ultimately, allow them to perform to the best of their ability and to progress in their career.
Both formal and informal support networks can help give a sense of belonging for individuals who may otherwise feel they are a minority, so encourage formation and participation in these groups, including considering joining networks yourself.
Formal networks: these allow individuals, regardless of gender, to support an organisation’s diversity and inclusion efforts. This could include organising events, ensuring PPE works for people with different body shapes, reviewing recruitment material or challenging policies. For me personally, being a part of this more formal network has given me a space at work where I know with absolute certainty that I “belong”
Informal networks: make a point of introducing women you work with to other females in the profession, and encourage the development of these informal relationships. In a male dominated environment, it can be really helpful to have both female role models and other women to talk to. It is a positive experience to be able to see other people who “look like you” demonstrating that it is possible to have the career that you want. There are also times where, regardless of how supportive male colleagues are, it is just easier to talk to another woman. When society is telling me that I am weaker than my male colleagues it can be very hard to then approach a man and “admit weakness” (e.g. struggling with stress or requiring additional support), even when you know it wouldn’t be perceived as such.
Challenge inappropriate behaviour and watch your own words and attitude. This helps to highlight and, hopefully, correct behaviours when necessary, but it also demonstrates a public show of support for diversity and inclusion. We all make mistakes and sometimes say or do things we then regret (I know I do!). When this happens, acknowledge and correct your own behaviour to set an example for others.
Ask about people’s experience, so you can better understand the challenges faced by those you work with. How you do this will depend on your relationship with individuals; you could, for example, highlight Women in Engineering Day on 23rd June, or send someone a copy of this article and ask them what they think. Remember to respect that some people might not want to talk about this – and that’s OK.
About the author
Catherine Ingram, MSc MEng MRINA is Principal Naval Architect at BMT. In 2018, she helped establish BMT's Technical Women Forum to further equality, diversity and inclusion within BMT and the broader industry. In April 2021, she received RINA's Eily Keary Award in recognition of the Technical Women’s Forum's achievements.