I almost didn’t write this article. I was worried that talking about women in engineering could be seen as complaining or looking for special treatment. Why is it a subject we need to highlight ? For me, the answer is the numbers - there are not enough women in engineering. Why is this significant? I believe engineering, and in particular, the field of Clinical Engineering would be better with a balance of women and men working collectively together. A quote I recently saw in an article ‘What will it take to get more women in green energy jobs’ sums it up for me - ‘Fewer women means less diversity; less diversity means less innovation; less innovation means less economic growth; and less economic growth is a serious economic threat.’¹
The ratio of men to women working in the engineering industry is 9:1.2 The percentage of women who are members of Engineers Ireland is 8.85%.3 According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), the percentage of women in Ireland employed in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) is just less than 25%.4
I carried out a survey to find out the percentage of women working in Clinical Engineering across hospitals in Ireland and the result was just as disappointing at 17%. Why is this figure so low ?
Education is Key
The lack of women in STEM education could traditionally be attributed to the ‘maths is not for girls’ way of thinking. Historically, maths and other ‘male’ subjects were not available for female students to study in school. One would assume we had moved on however these negative stereotypes are still holding women back. In 2013, more girls than boys sat higher level papers in the Leaving Cert. exams in english, french, Irish, biology, chemistry, art, home economics and music. More boys than girls took higher level maths, physics, construction studies, design and communication graphics and engineering. 5 As a result, the number of women choosing to study engineering at third level is low.
According to a recent report by UCD on gender balance in engineering, UCD has an annual norm of 20%. They state there are two important reasons we should be worried about the low numbers of women choosing to study engineering –
1. Access to a larger pool of future engineers and access to a more diverse talent pool in the interest of creativity and innovation which is the core of engineering.
2. Managing gender balance in the workplace and the competitive advantage it creates. 3
The figures for Clinical Engineering are slightly more encouraging. I contacted the Department of Engineering at DCU to ascertain the percentage of female students in first year of the Bioengineering degree - 33%. Interestingly, Physics with Biomedical Science at DCU is the only physics course with more women than men choosing it as an option as opposed to Physics with Astronomy or Applied Physics. According to the University of Connecticuts’ Biomedical Engineering department, the attractions for many women to a career in Bioengineering are:
· The flexibility and inherent creativity of the discipline relative to other engineering areas
· The ability to work in a profession that strives to improve the quality of people's lives
· The existing critical mass of women in medical professions
· The integration of biological sciences6
This theory is echoed by the University of California, Berkeley. Their courses in computer engineering and more traditional male fields such as mechanical and civil engineering have much higher numbers of women enrolling because the content of the work itself is more meaningful in society.7
I have never experienced discrimination as a woman from my colleagues in Clinical Engineering since I began working in the industry. The same perhaps cannot be said of a previous employment, where I did experience discrimination and as a result I was becoming disillusioned working in the field. The culture of the ‘boys club’ was definitely in existence. I may have joined the ‘leaky pipeline’ of women in engineering had it not been for my start in Clinical Engineering.
In the U.S., it has been reported that one in four women have left the engineering profession by age 30, compared to one in ten men.8 The main reason seems to be dissatisfaction over pay and promotion opportunities . A 2011 McKinsey report noted that men and women are treated differently when it comes to promotion – men are promoted based on their potential; women are promoted based on their past accomplishments.9 This lack of females ‘at the top’ can make it more difficult for junior female members of staff to connect with a mentor or sponsor.
My career in Clinical Engineering began in 2006. After working as a maintenance technician for a few years after college, I took a year off to travel. Before returning home, during a final visit to an internet cafe to update friends and family of my travelling tails, I decided to have a look at job options for my return home. Back then there were plenty of jobs, however one in particular caught my eye - Clinical Engineering Technician. The closing date for applications was the following day. I was intrigued. I applied. And so, after my year long hiatus, 2006 was the start of my career in Clinical Engineering.
Narrowing the Gender Gap
So how can we, as Clinical Engineering professionals, bring about change ? Firstly, we need to be engaging with the right influencers – career guidance teachers and parents – the BEAI could be more proactive in this area. There is a misconception among parents of students as to what a career in engineering entails and this needs to be addressed. 68% of parents feel they are moderately to very poorly informed on STEM career opportunities. 4 We need to show that a career in engineering can be an exciting career path and open so many doors with an opportunity to make a difference in society.
From my experience, the culture in Clinical Engineering is much more accepting of women and we should be taking advantage of this. This is perhaps due to the fact that more women work in healthcare in general. In addition to this, many Clinical Engineering departments are integrated with Medical Physics who tend to have equal, if not more female staff than male. We also need more women at the top of this industry which in turn will provide more role models for women. Recently, there has been a surge in the number of women being appointed to senior levels in the STEM industry both at home and internationally. These include Edel Creely, an engineering graduate of Trinity College Dublin, who in 2013 was appointed Chair of the Executive Council of the Irish Software Association. Also Ann Marie Holmes - Fab 24 factory manager at Intel. Ann Marie joined the company in 1994 as an engineer and was a leader of Intel’s Women in Technology program. She was the recipient of the Women Mean Business Technology Award in 2012.
Engineers Ireland STEPS (Science, Technology and Engineering Programme for Schools) is a program aimed at encouraging primary and secondary school students to explore science and engineering. They recently held a Women in Engineering career seminar with the aim of encouraging female students to explore a career in engineering.
Social Media is another medium by which we can showcase the possibilities a career in Clinical Engineering can bring. An example of this is the Facebook page of Women in Technology and Science Ireland (WITS).
My hope is that more women have the opportunity to experience an exciting and rewarding career in engineering, as I have so far. In the last few years I have become a mother to two children, a son and daughter and perhaps this is the reason I think about this issue, now, more than ever. My hope is that they both will have equal opportunities throughout their lives. Ultimately, stereotypes will only hold us back.
1. Atlantic.com 2013 ‘What will it take to get more women in green energy jobs’ http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/04/what-will-it-take-to-ge...
2. Engineering Perspectives 2013 report
3. Towards Gender Balance in Engineering, UCD Engineering Graduates Report October 2014
4. Accenture (2014) – Powering economic growth; Attracting more young women into Science and Technology
5. (CSO) 2013, Women and Men in Ireland
6. University of Connecticut; Women in BME professions http://www.bme.uconn.edu/about-bme/women-in-bme-professions
7. How to Attract Female Engineers
8. Society of Women Engineers (SWE) 2007 Where are all the women going ?
9. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg 2013