Most people will disagree with this statement – “surely gender doesn’t affect a person’s ability to be an engineer?” Yet recent findings show there is still a massive gender gap within the Engineering sector. Females currently make up just 9% of the total UK Engineering workforce – the lowest in Europe and unchanged since 2012. However, the number of female engineering graduates has been seen to increase, perhaps indicating an unconscious bias towards male engineers. This problem not only affects engineering companies and their employees, but also those in education and government.
This brings us to our moral dilemma: How can we increase the percentage of women in the engineering workforce without discriminating candidates based on gender?
The Gender Agenda
In 2008, Siemens AG promised to promote more women into boardroom and leadership roles, however by 2013, both female board members had left the company. These figures are not unique to Siemens AG, but relate to engineering companies globally. The German government has attempted to rectify gender imbalance in their listed companies, by implementing a legal requirement for women to represent at least 30% of supervisory boards by 2016. Only 39% of STEM companies in the FTSE 100 have more than two women on their board, which shows the UK could benefit from a similar model.
Furthermore, there has not been an increase in female intake within engineering companies over the past few years. Rolls-Royce stated that in 2015, females made up 22% of their graduate intake, however these statistics are not exclusive to engineering and include professions, such as HR, that are known to be female dominant. This percentage is viewed as a success, however upon further inspection of UK employee statistics, it can be seen that in previous years only 29.8% of female STEM graduates remained within their STEM occupations, compared to 50.3% of their male counterparts. There is no lack of potential female recruitment out there with the correct qualifications, so why do the company statistics not reflect the current female graduate rate?
One course of action is to enforce a legal requirement for large companies (>250 employees) to achieve a set quota of female engineers, with an aim to achieve parity in the long term. This is supported by the Utilitarian framework, as it would improve diversity within the workplace. However, this could discriminate against male applicants as females might be favoured regardless of skill/knowledge, which is unethical according to Kant’s theory. This could be improved by adjusting the quota according to the current engineering population.
Another action is to set a legal requirement for all companies to publish their employee statistics. This action is supported by the Egotistic ethical approach as it is in the company’s best interest to increase their diversity to enhance their reputation. Additionally, by enabling women to meet their full potential at work, up to $28trillion could be added to the annual GDP by 2025. It is also supported by the Utilitarian framework as it does not force companies to employ women but instead ensures applicants are selected based on competence rather than gender, satisfying the majority.
Educate, not legislate
One reason often given for reduced numbers of women in engineering is maternity leave. In a recent survey, 60% of women said that there were barriers to returning to work after a career break. This can be a major issue in engineering companies due to the speed at which the industry moves and the technical nature of the work. To counteract this, companies could run refresher courses, such as Vodafone’s Return to Technology initiative, to bring professionals back up to speed. This strategy, supported by the Utilitarian framework, is likely to increase morale and the perception of worth among employees, saving the company money as they don’t need to train new staff from scratch. This is also supported by Kant’s framework as all companies should consider the welfare of their employees.
Another option is to take no action and leave the situation to progress by itself. This relies on women currently employed at engineering companies to naturally progress to top level positions. This will allow them to become role models for the industry, encouraging more women to enter technical fields. This will also increase the influence of women within the company, potentially encouraging higher female employment rates. This strategy is supported by the Common Good approach, as the general will of the people is to promote equality within the workplace and therefore this should allow the best suited people to be placed in the ideal roles.
Many will argue that the gender gap is not a result of employment barriers, but rather stems from the need to educate children about what engineering actually is – removing the stigmatism surrounding this profession. For the past 25 years, girls have made up approximately 20% of A Level physics students. With this being a core subject for many engineering degrees, it is not surprising that the number of women in the workforce has remained relatively unchanged. Under the Utilitarian framework, the ethical impact of tailoring education is uncertain. On the one hand, the consequence may be more girls choose to study STEM subjects and subsequently engineering. On the other, children may feel pressured into pursuing careers they aren’t interested in. In addition, as education is generally considered positive, this strategy is supported by Kant’s framework.
However, the National STEM Learning Network has been trying to improve engagement within STEM subjects for over 10 years, with little impact on female representation in engineering. A more drastic strategy would be to make at least one STEM subject mandatory at A-Level, however, this could be ethically immoral when considered under the Freedom Principle. We therefore feel education is a good course of action to take but is insufficient on its own to tackle gender inequality in engineering.
There is no simple answer for such a complex issue, hence no one solution is sufficient. The implications of enforcing gender legislation and manipulating education to promote a particular subject are unethical. Therefore, we feel the best course of action is to encourage companies to improve their self-image, by publishing employee statistics, and to provide equal opportunities to all employees, irrespective of gender.
Group 38: Caroline Dry, Matthew Jeffery, Isabel Brown, Matthew Smith