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All things being equal

This year Ellie Matthews becomes Schaeffler UK's first female plant manager in over 75 years. In the month of international women in engineering day (23rd June) we understand that although this is a milestone, it shouldn't be. Ellie comments on the lack of female engineers and what strengths women can bring to our industry.

Keeping up with change

It’s true to say that we are in a complex marketplace, with a great deal of uncertainty. While the coronavirus pandemic obviously caused significant issues across our entire operation, supply chain issues have been compounded and, in some cases exacerbated, by Brexit and the need for UK manufacturing to remain competitive through agility and best practice.

Furthermore, the automotive sector is undergoing immense change as a result of the sustainability based agenda and the move towards electric vehicles and e-mobility. Aligning the business accordingly is a real challenge and learning how to motivate people in turbulent times through effective team building poses its own challenges.

Empowering women

The Labour Force Survey March 202 showed that just 16.5 per cent of those working in engineering are female. The future of our industry depends on bringing more people into our workforce and it will impact our ability to develop the engineering sector if we don’t recruit more people into this type of career.

We have to cast a wider net and bringing more women into the industry is a major part of that. There are some positive signs of change though, as the number of women working in engineering occupations rose from 721,586 in Q2 of 2016 to 906,785 in Q3 of 2020.

Evidence shows significant gender differences when it comes to understanding engineering and perceptions of identity is a key factor when making subject and career choices. EngineeringUK found that only 60 per cent of girls aged 11-14 think they could become an engineer if they wanted to, compared to 72 per cent of boys. This drops to 53 per cent in the 16-19 age range, where only a quarter of girls say they would ever consider a career in engineering.

Throughout my career I have devoted a lot of time to talking to girls and young women about the value of studying STEM disciplines and pursuing careers in engineering. This is part of the solution, understanding what engineering is at a younger age, in particular when children are making decisions regarding their future studies. There are also a lot of great programmes aimed at educating young people about these career paths. This provides a strong foundation and is making a difference, but it’s not enough. Companies also need to have the right mentoring and advocacy programmes in place to give women the right support and opportunities for leadership.

People struggle to do what they can’t see, representation in this arena is important for people to know that engineering is an option for everyone.

Creating a new culture

Engineering can benefit from a woman’s approach that tends to encompass more compromise, negotiation, communication and motivation. Of course, that’s not to say that men don’t possess these qualities, but engineering is, and always has been, male dominated. Conversations tend to be solutions orientated but sometimes, as demonstrated during the pandemic, compassion and empathy can be highly effective and getting the best out of people.

We need to create a flexible culture that works around, for example, maternity and paternity leave. We must also think of more innovative ways to attract young females early and allow them to see women in senior roles. I was once told by a female executive to ‘be what you want to be’ – this had a profound impact on me and it’s something that I tell girls who are making decisions about their futures.

A failure to embrace diversity and inclusion results in missed opportunities, potential failure or marketplace disruption. Whilst diversity recognises differences between employees, inclusion embraces these differences, acknowledging that they can benefit a business. We have to create a culture that allows for this – simply saying it isn’t enough.

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