Only 11% of UK engineers are female – raising this is the logical way to solve our skills gap

If you brought together a cross-section of British adults working in STEM today, the vast majority would still be male. Why does this disparity still exist?

Maddy White spoke to director of calibration development at Cummins UK, Susan Henry, about her 16-years working in industry.

UK manufacturing faces a persistent skills shortage, 81% of firms found it difficult to recruit staff in the last quarter of 2018 according to a survey by the British Chambers of Commerce. Yet, little more than one-in-10 engineers in the UK are female.  

The logical way to ensure access to skills at this pivotal time is to have more women working in industry. But is the solution that simple? And if it is, why does it remain such a taxing task?

Women in leadership roles

Susan Henry was a panelist at a recent ‘Women in STEM’ careers discussion I attended at the House of Lords. Though she was the only panel member with first-hand experience of being a woman working in industry, hearing her speak candidly about her career was insightful and a much needed voice in the room. The Manufacturer interviewed Henry exclusively after the event to hear her full story.

Having studied physics at university, Henry is now responsible for the development and support of combustion, performance and emissions relating to European engine systems, as well as the diagnostic and electronical controls systems.

She said: “I love my job and there are many positives, but we still have room to grow in terms of the acceptance of women in leadership roles in our work with customers, suppliers and even, at times, within our own company.

STEM (C) Susan Henry is pictured at the House of Lords - image courtesy of Cummins UK.
(C) Susan Henry is pictured at the House of Lords – image courtesy of Cummins UK.

“Sometimes you’ll get a promotion, and not everyone is happy about that, there will always be those people who will think it is because I’m a woman and they need to promote women in senior roles. It is the saddest thing for me.”

One method of addressing gender disparity is having quotas aimed at achieving a specific proportion of women in a business.

Implementing quotes, however, has proven to be a controversial action. Some see them as simply promoted tokenism, box-ticking, and representing an unsustainable short-term fix. Others note that if we don’t use them, what will it actually take for businesses to sit up and actually make changes?

Henry commented: “I think that [quotas are] the right thing to do because it drives accountability; but it also feels like the wrong thing to do, because then that implies the women you’ve hired are only there because they are female.”

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Quotas won’t solve the issue

Henry believes if we are to solve the skills gap and have more equal gender balances, then instead the solution requires getting more women interested in industry.

“Tackling the issue from different angles is the way forward. I think getting parents in schools to encourage young women to study science and engineering is necessary, because if they don’t study those subjects then you have no chance of employing them in STEM roles or otherwise. It is good to start at that level.

“Once you have their attention and they are in engineering and manufacturing, then it is all about how you retain and develop them into senior management positions. How do you create an inclusive environment where all employees, men and women, can thrive? That is what I am looking to help achieve at Cummins.”

Positively, Henry described how industry had changed: “I have noticed the difference that gender balance is not seen as a women’s problem anymore, whereby women have to fix it, it is a team effort to have gender diversity. I think that businesses are realising that actually there is incentives to having a diverse workforce, whereas before they did not.”

Advice to others

Henry continues to add her advice to other women in STEM careers, and noted: “If you have made it [to industry], don’t leave before you are ready, even if you aren’t enjoying it or you don’t think you will be able to work and have a family. Take a chance on yourself and build a good support network around you.

Susan Henry Cummins UK STEM
Susan Henry is pictured – image courtesy of Cummins UK.

“But, also when you see something that isn’t right, call it out. Often people don’t always know they have done it, so help change it for future generations. If they look at you to take the minutes of a meeting don’t do it, don’t be afraid to say ‘are you asking me to do that because I am a woman?’ It is unconscious – I have never met anyone who is doing that for malicious intent – it is all because they do not realise.”

She added: “I look after the European side of the business and what we can do here to encourage and retain our employees. In Europe, we have special mentoring schemes to help build networks, either technical or development skills, we have lots of mentoring circles, and we have lots of opportunities to meet different people.”

Henry concluded by saying it is “crucially important” for everyone in businesses to be able to “affect change”.