Gender diversity – women in engineering

Women are a scarce resource in most engineering firms. So what has the industry done to make itself so unappealing to the female gender? It looks like the burden of history is still weighing on the engineering world. Half a century since women were first allowed to sit the selective entrance exams for France’s major engineering schools and the Equal Pay Act was passed, introducing the principle of “equal pay for equal work”, things are changing, but it’s a slow process. Fortunately, though, there are some women who are tackling the problem head on!

The women at Assystem certainly don’t sit around twiddling their thumbs. In 2010, a group of female employees decided to shake up the status quo by launching a programme called #INCREDIBLEWOMEN. Based on the theme of ambition (not only women’s ambition but also that of the company and society in general), the programme is designed to promote scientific studies for female students, encourage the recruitment of more women and enhance women’s job fulfilment and career development within the Group. A silent revolution aimed at empowering women in the world of engineering.

Creating a better gender balance in the workplace

Although women no longer need their husbands’ permission to work (sic), it’s clear that some industries are still being shunned by the female gender – engineering, building, IT and defence for example. Take Assystem, where in 2010 women accounted for just 17% of the workforce and 22% of new hires. It may be stating the obvious, but discrimination (in all its forms) occurs when a group is in the minority.

Just hire more women – that’ll solve the problem, you may say. But it’s more complicated than that. Very few women apply for jobs in these so-called “male” domains. Because apart from in schools specialised in biology or life sciences, on average only 20% of engineering school students are girls. In fact, the gap starts to widen right from secondary school. Perhaps due to a lack of female role models for scientific careers, or because of their overly masculine image, girls gradually turn away from technical and scientific subjects during their schooling. Fewer girls learning tech and science means fewer girls in engineering schools, which means fewer female hires in these industries.

Fanny Fouin – a mechanical engineer in Assystem’s Innovation team and a member of the #INCREDIBLEWOMEN programme – says “Historically, engineering – and particularly mechanical engineering – has always been a male dominated field. I am lucky to belong to the generation that is benefitting from the first wave of progress in terms of gender diversity in business. Encouraging girls to take up scientific and technical studies is key to improvement in the future. We need to help girls overcome the feeling that engineering is just for men. It is our role as engineers to get this message across by reaching out to the younger generation in schools and colleges. Raising awareness upstream is absolutely vital.”

Several initiatives are emerging to deal with the root of the problem. For example, the non-profit association, Elles Bougent (“Girls on the Move”) in France – with which Assystem has a partnership – raises awareness about scientific careers among girls in secondary schools and colleges through first-hand accounts from women engineers. Because in order to see themselves as engineers, girls need to actually know what engineering is all about. The association also organises information meetings for girls at engineering trade fairs. And going one step further, Assystem’s experienced women engineers mentor young female students in engineering schools. All of these actions are starting to pay off as women now make up 26% of Assystem’s total workforce and 30% of its new hires. Although these percentages are still not enough, they’re definitely moving in the right direction!

Empowering women

Recruiting women is important but it’s only the starting point. The glass ceiling, unequal pay and other forms of discrimination still prevent women from moving up the ladder in engineering firms, just as they do in most companies – and not only in Europe. That’s why the United Nations has issued a set of “Women’s Empowerment Principles” (which Assystem has signed up to) although these are far from being applied everywhere:

In order to empower women in the workplace, companies should offer personalised coaching and specific training for those who want it. Too many women tend to put barriers across their own paths and think they’re incapable of holding a high-level job. Generally, a woman will only apply for a job if she thinks she has at least 90% of the skills required whereas a man will apply when he thinks he has 50%. At Assystem, to help our female employees be more assertive and break down these barriers to promotion we organise “lunch & learn” sessions with an external coach who gives talks on ambition.

Fanny Fouin says: “By 2020, I hope there will be more female engineers and more women holding key roles on corporate boards and/or heading up major corporations.” The objective set for the #INCREDIBLEWOMEN programme is to achieve gender equality in Assystem’s workforce and management by 2020.

To break through the glass ceiling and improve gender diversity, it’s not only women’s attitudes that need to change. Everyone in the company needs to be aware of the issue in order to fight against clichés that are often more deeply embedded than we might think and to realise the discrimination that is happening on a regular basis, such as women being interrupted during meetings or topics put forward by women being relegated to the bottom of the agenda.

All for one and one for all!

United we stand, divided we fall! If women want to establish their position in business, they need to help each other and work together. The first initiative set up under the #INCREDIBLEWOMEN programme was therefore to create a strong network. Meetings are organised on a monthly basis to discuss particular issues within the Assystem group, such as the complementary skills of men and women in business, the impact of a female manager, “daring to dare” and overcoming the fear of failure, women in management, etc.

Originally launched in France, this network is gradually growing internationally. Management’s aim is for all of Assystem’s host countries to come on board, particularly those where women’s rights are limited (in the Middle East for instance). Although Assystem has to adapt its operations to local laws in some countries in that region, gender diversity is a powerful symbol. Last year, two young Saudi women employees won the Group’s innovation contest for their 3D digital model that transforms teamwork on major projects. They were invited to receive their award in Paris.

Purely on a pragmatic level, engineering firms need women in order to meet their recruitment needs. In a tight job market where all companies are struggling to recruit, how can they afford to pass up on half the talent pool? Aside from this (somewhat) cynical observation, the issue of gender diversity in the workplace is fundamental. Because diversity drives creativity and innovation. And because it benefits everyone – both individuals and society as a whole.

Publish by :
by Anne-Charlotte Dagorn & Julie Glaiesser, in charge of Assystem’s #INCREDIBLEWOMEN gender diversity programme


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