New Era of Women in Engineering

As Royal HaskoningDHV celebrates 100 years in Southern Africa, CEO Anke Mastenbroek considers some of the most common industry misperceptions that need to go if we’re to #BreaktheBias and create real inclusivity and gender diversity in engineering for the next 100 years.

When we talk about bias and discrimination in the engineering industry, the conversation often shifts to gender inequality, and for good reason. Although progress has been made in overcoming the challenges that women experience, discrimination and bias continue to plague the industry.

Women still feel like they can’t be themselves, that they’re not taken seriously, they don’t fit in, and they have to work extra hard to prove themselves.

The pay gap is still an issue. On-site safety is still an issue. The fact that women carry an invisible mental workload of running a household is still an issue.

But if we really want to #BreakTheBias and start seeing real progress, we also need to start breaking the misperceptions that also plague the industry and deter women from considering a career in this dynamic field.

For example:

Misperception: You have to love Mathematics and Science to become an engineer

Reality: Yes, Mathematics, Science, and technical ability are important foundational skills in engineering. But with technology taking on more of the grunt work, analysis, and calculations, they’re becoming less so. We need more of the skills that technology can’t replicate like creativity, empathy, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, imagination, problem-solving, and leadership.

Engineering is not so much about being good at Maths as it is about being interested in how things work and how they affect each other. If you were the kind of kid who took apart and put back together the toaster, made a potato gun, or tried to light a leaf on fire with a magnifying glass, you might enjoy a career in engineering.

Engineers work with some of the greatest minds to solve the world’s most pressing challenges, like saving the planet, providing the systems that ensure more children get an education, or ensuring that we don’t run out of water.

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Do girls know that with a solid foundation in engineering, the possibilities are limitless. You could specialise in one field, like chemical engineering, or be a generalist who understands multiple disciplines and how they link together. You could branch into business development, start your own consulting company, or teach others.

Do girls know that engineering is a “portable” career and that by studying civil engineering, for example, you can specialise in bridges and roads and later switch to water systems or data centres? You can choose a path that offers travel across the world or one that lets you stay in one place and raise a family. You can work anywhere you want; on whatever problem you choose. It’s a purpose-driven career, and your passion can literally take you anywhere.

Engineers are in demand worldwide and even more so in South Africa. Just this month, aeronautical engineers, civil engineers, industrial engineers, mechanical engineers, and systems engineers were added to South Africa’s critical skills list.

We must stop putting girls off just because they might not enjoy Geometry and challenge outdated perceptions of engineering by showcasing the range of careers available as an engineer.

We should be talking about the variety and excitement this industry offers and the fact that the world wouldn’t work very well without engineers.

Misperception: Engineers wear hard hats, overalls, and are up to their elbows in dirt

Reality: If being oily, smelly, and dirty appeals to you, then yes, some engineers do look like this, and they love it. But some of the smartest engineers I know have long, manicured nails; wear heels to work, and are part-time models.

An engineer doesn’t “look” a certain way, and women shouldn’t have to toughen up, downplay their gender identity, or be “one of the boys” to succeed in engineering.

Many girls don’t want to be engineers because they think the job is boring, not creative, and based in a factory. This is because people don’t know enough about the breadth, depth, range, and quality of engineering careers.

If you like being at the coalface and getting dirty, there’s a place for you in engineering. And if you prefer to keep your hands clean and not have your make-up sweat off your face, there’s a place for you too.

You already fit here. We don’t want you to change. We want and need your authentic self. Anything else will drain and distract you from doing life-changing work.

Misperception: The engineering industry is inherently sexist and discriminatory

Reality: This depends entirely on the company you work for. That’s because workplace culture greatly influences why women accept and stay in (or leave) engineering roles.

Companies that aren’t committed to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion and that don’t have solid anti-discrimination and harassment policies and procedures in place will not be welcoming to women.

But at the end of the day, these businesses are losing out because women will leave, and they’ll take the very skills, imaginative perspective, and structural and cultural differences that drive effective solutions, give the business a competitive advantage, and contribute to higher revenue and productivity with them.

They’ll move to firms that value and recognise women’s contributions, invest in their training and professional development, and support them in reaching their potential. They’ll choose a culture where women feel comfortable speaking up and sharing their ideas without fear of judgement or discrimination. They’ll find a home that values flexibility, balance, and the power of collaboration.

If you’re on a team that makes you feel bad for sharing your ideas, it’s time to find a company with supportive leadership and open-minded colleagues.

Misperception: You have to be an ‘expert’ at what you do to be valued

Getting a good, high-paying, and fulfilling engineering job doesn’t mean you need to be the most technically minded candidate. When we hire engineers, we look for people who are willing to learn, collaborate, and grow professionally and personally.

We look for people who aren’t afraid to put their hands up for challenging projects and problems, even if they don’t think they have all the skills and knowledge required. No one does.

Be honest about your skills gaps but willing to learn. Men don’t battle with Imposter Syndrome nearly as much as women do. Research shows that men will apply for a job if they meet 60% of the criteria, while women will only apply if they meet 100%.

Nobody knows everything there is to know about something, and we will never know everything. That’s why the industry needs lifelong learners and women who can embrace a growth mindset to figure it out as they go along – and to take others with them on the journey. Lifelong learners are assets in an industry where technology changes rapidly, and societal problems get more challenging every year.

Be tenacious and daring when creating your path because no one else will do it for you. Find a mentor in your business, your industry, or a completely different industry who can advocate for you, challenge your thinking, and support you in reaching your goals. Ask the “dumb” questions, ask for feedback, and find the courage to actively pursue professional development opportunities. The world will thank you for it.

Final word

Women in engineering don’t want to be treated differently or with kid gloves. We want to be heard, respected, and acknowledged for the professionals that we are and for the dynamism, creativity, and empathy that the industry desperately needs.

That starts with challenging misperceptions about engineering and giving women the confidence to explore an industry that will change the world.

Instead of waiting for things to change, women need to start enforcing change. We are not powerless in breaking down perceived barriers, and we need to be our own advocates.

That means speaking up when things don’t feel right, challenging how things are done, and offering a different perspective

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