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Being Female in a Male Dominated Industry

June 23, 2017

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Never mind Brexit it was “Legsit” that grabbed the headlines when Theresa May met Nicola Sturgeon to discuss the future of Britain. This sparked a national debate on the state of equality and how far we’ve really come.  

But is it still as big an issue as the media would have us believe, and what is it actually like to work in a seemingly 'male dominated' industry? We caught up with Janice Richford, an engineer working in an industry, where there are still eight times as many men as women, to find out her thoughts on the matter.  

Janice Richford, who is currently working at Rumaila Oilfield, Basra, Iraq in the Operations Engineering Department as the Electrical Technical Authority, has worked in the Oil and Gas industry for 20 years.

Janice, who is originally from Glasgow but moved to Hungary ten years ago, doesn’t feel her gender hindered her when looking for a job in this industry, although she has experienced some strange interview questions:

“In one particular interview for a graduate engineering position I was asked about my 'opinion on children' which I felt was a highly inappropriate and judgmental question to direct at me… particularly ridiculous considering I was only 20 years of age at the time,” she recalled.

“I was also equally offended when receiving an offer for a job interview which was intonated as being part of a campaign to bring more women into engineering by a major UK company. While I believe there definitely should be more women in engineering… each person should be judged on his or her own merits for each job role - that is the only way that equality can be fairly attained.”   

While the number of women in the industry has increased over the years and they are far more accepted then the once were, Janice said: “It is still relatively unusual to come across more than a few female engineers in one place. However, my choice of work locations may have an implicit impact on that observation as I have spent the past ten years working in remote desert environments which are ostensibly not the most appealing for the majority of people.”

She added: “Engineering, and definitely in the Oil and Gas sector to which my sphere of experience is limited, is without question, a male dominated industry. In general, the ratio would be something like 30:1 or so from my own general observations. Among the complete population of employees in my current role in Iraq –it would be closer to 300:1.”

“People are still generally surprised to see women in this industry,” Janice explained. “It is not uncommon to be asked about why you decided to become an engineer in the first place – which is not a question that would typically be levied at male colleagues – it is a question borne out of curiosity, which in itself tells you that people still perceive it to be an unorthodox choice.”

Although Janice does not feel that there is a gender pay gap - and nor has she been treated differently for being a women - she revealed she has experienced, “The very odd comment or stereo-typed assumption from associates over the years.”   

She also explained: “I have spent a large part of my career working either in or interfacing with people from conservative cultures, where a woman’s role is far more restricted and defined within boundaries that do not necessarily align with my own views. This has of course meant that there is more effort required in order to establish yourself and your authority in order to try and attain equal treatment.”

Janice's belief is that it isn’t the industry itself that needs to change but rather that we need to encourage more women to become a part of it. “What does need to change is the numbers of girls taking up technical subjects at school and engineering degree qualifications at university," she said. "When less than 15% of engineering and technology graduates are female I believe, then the industry cannot be shaped any other way.”

Despite a steady improvement for women in these industries, the fact that there are still so few of them shows that there quite clearly is still a place for campaigns and charities – if for nothing more to encourage women to enter these industries and to ensure equality both remains and grows.

One such charity is the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) which is formed of a professional network of female engineers as well as scientists and technologists that offer inspiration, support and professional development as well as campaigning to encourage women to participate and achieve as engineers, scientists and as leaders.

Kirsten Bodley, CEO of WES, explained: “Our mission is to inspire and support women to achieve their potential as engineers, applied scientists and technical leaders. WES works collaboratively to assist educators, employers and influencers in creating a diverse engineering community.”

The society, which was set up following World War I when the women who worked in engineering roles during the War campaigned to continue in them, created International Women in Engineering Day three years ago. NWED, which takes place on the 23rd June, "seeks to celebrate the achievements of women in engineering and inspire younger generations,” explained Kirsten. The day, "serves as an accessible and inspiring way not only for schools, colleges and universities to encourage girls to take up engineering careers, but also companies, professional organisations, government and individuals to showcase their commitment to diversity and to raise the profile of women’s achievements in engineering by organising their own events.”

Alongside this, the society works in partnership with The Telegraph to highlight the achievements of young women through the 'Top 50 Women in Engineering under 35' list.

Kirsten explained: “The proportion of young women studying engineering and physics has remained virtually static since 2012. In addition, the number of women in engineering has remained under 10 per cent of the total engineering workforce in the UK since 2005 and the gender balance in the profession remains one of the worst in Europe.

With a large skills gap looming and the additional need for a more diverse workforce, it has never been more important to inspire and encourage girls to choose a career in engineering and women to stay in the industry and return after a career break.

There has been some positive progress, but there is a very long way to go across the engineering sectors – it is a challenge that needs a step-change in recruiting and retaining the female workforce including reviewing flexible working approaches.”

In terms of whether there is a gender pay gap within these industries, Kirsten said: “Research by Deloitte shows that although the gender pay gap is closing steadily, we forecast that at the current rate of convergence, pay parity will not be achieved until 2069. In engineering however, the gender pay gap is smaller than in the general pay gap.” 

Chief Executive Helen Wollaston from WISE, who campaign for gender balance in science, technology and engineering, said: “Rather than equal treatment, we need to create an environment in which women feel they belong and in which they can do their best work and thrive. We don’t always want to be treated the same as men – but we want to be treated with respect and allowed to be ourselves.”

She added: “Women tend to be interested in the bigger picture – talking about the purpose of the job helps. This is why we find more women work in renewables than in the more traditional energy sector. Those companies working in renewables can encourage applications from women by emphasising the opportunities to make a difference.”   

If you are a female who has contemplated working in one of these industries but been put off by fear of not being treated as equal to your male colleagues – don’t be. Ultimately the main reason these roles are dominated by males is because females simply aren’t applying for the roles. Want to change this? Check out the roles we currently have available – you never know where it could take you!