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Women engineers: a force to be reckoned with

Interesting fact: women represent 47% of the UK workforce but only 13% of the STEM workforce.

Given such startling statistics, the conference for last week’s National Women in Engineering Day focused on the topical issue of women returning to work after a career break. A long line-up of speakers, including former Minister for Employment Relations Jo Swinson, talked about the steps that have been taken over many years to address the many issues that act as a barrier for women entering and remaining in the engineering field. A common thread was also the challenges still to be overcome.

Recent research by Prospect Union identified the main barriers to women returning to work after a career break included money, time, training and geography. What also came through as a thread for the day was the lack of skilled line-managers who were able and willing to support women on their return.

A striking example of progress in this respect are ‘returnship programmes’. A term first coined by Goldman Sachs in the USA, ‘returnships’ have proven to be a highly successful way of reintroducing women in to the workplace after a career break. These structured programmes involve a trial 3-6 month contract. Clearly defined projects and objectives combined with training and line-manager support have proven highly effective at attracting and retaining top female talent. In fact conversion rates have proven so high the these programmesare now being rolled out in the UK financial sector in companies like RBS, J.P. Morgan and Credit Suisse - and now also in other sectors including the Thames Tideway Tunnel.

It’s very refreshing to hear the focus and emphasis being placed on attracting and retaining women engineers. What’s also encouraging is that emphasis is being placed on equipping the women with the right tools and skills to pick their career back up, but also recognition that responsibility also lies with equipping line-managers with the right skills to offer the understanding and support to bring out the best in their reports.