At BAI Communications, we believe that employers who build diverse and inclusive organisations benefit from increased employee engagement and productivity.

Through our ongoing partnership with the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), we are working to diversify the talent pipeline by encouraging a wider range of people to consider a career in engineering or other STEM-related subjects so that employers can build diversity into the workforce at the earliest stage of recruitment.

This year, WES is celebrating International Women in Engineering Day by naming The Top 50 Women in Engineering 2020, with a focus on those working in sustainability. Our director of engineering, Andrew Conway, was invited to join the judging panel.

Here, we spoke to WES chief executive Elizabeth Donnelly about the award, how companies can encourage more women to apply for STEM roles, and why she thinks engineers are shaping the world.

Thank you for speaking to us Elizabeth. How did you start your career in engineering?

I fell into engineering really. When I was a kid, my dad brought home a ZX81 computer. I was the only girl with three brothers and they used to code on it so I picked bits up from them. Then there was a computer club at my school when I was about 14. I remember hanging around the door at break, and there were four boys and one male teacher, and nobody ever looked up and invited me in. Now I would say to myself: just go in and introduce yourself!

What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a woman in engineering?

I’m in a theoretical part of engineering, so I don’t build bridges and I often don’t think I fit in. But I found myself fixing a blind recently and I thought ‘of course I know how to do this’ because engineering is about problem solving. It’s about looking at a situation and examining how you take things apart and put them back together again.

Self-doubt, or worrying about whether you are good enough and whether you have done enough, is difficult. I think it’s because women continually face challenges and have to continually justify themselves.

What does it mean for you to be the CEO of the Women’s Engineering Society?

My whole life has been about women and diversity, charity and engineering, so to be the chief executive of the Women’s Engineering Society is my dream job.

Last year marked 100 years since the Women’s Engineering Society was established. What would you like to see happen in the next 100 years to encourage girls and women in STEM subjects?

Women and girls just need to be accepted. Someone once asked me whether she was the token woman. I told her that she had worked really, really hard to reach her position and she deserved it.

Often, the stereotypes start young. By the age of six, in the classroom, girls can point to boys and say ‘he is really clever’. Boys are praised for being good at subjects considered to be important, like maths and science. For girls, creative subjects are seen to be safe options, but they are not viewed as important or challenging.

But it’s those soft skills that employers are looking for. They want people in their organisations who are creative, who can work in teams and get the best out of people. Problems are solved quicker and more thoroughly when you have a diverse workforce.

What can businesses do to improve workforce diversity?

Companies can have a commitment to inclusion – and it starts at recruitment. You need to have a website and images of your workplace that looks welcoming. If anyone looks at your website, they should feel like they would fit in. Not everyone wants to be a trailblazer – and that is fine! If you can show that you are supporting a diverse work community, that is a great start.

There are things you can do to make job adverts more inclusive too. We have a gender decoder app on our website, so we remove the traditionally ‘male’ words and put in more traditionally ‘female’ words – swapping ‘force’ or ‘power’ for ‘collaboration’ or ‘cooperation’, for example. Women are far more likely to apply for jobs with more ‘feminine’ or gender-neutral words than if it’s strongly ‘masculine’. It’s also interesting to note that men do not care about the gender association of a job description – they are just as likely to apply.

You’ve announced the Top 50 Women in Engineering: Sustainability – why was this topic chosen?

Last year, the climate emergency was declared, the UN had published its Sustainable Development Goals, and the Toddbrook dam breaking at Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire in August 2019 was a turning point for me. The media was reporting that it was construction workers fixing this dam, and I kept thinking about how a lot of them were engineers. It was a huge operation to solve a problem caused by flooding and climate change.

Sustainable development is also about poverty, gender equality and hunger. We really wanted to show how engineers are going to be the solution to these big issues and that is how the ‘Shape the World’ theme emerged.

With Covid-19, it’s engineers who managed to build a hospital in five days, and it is engineers who turned their factories over to produce personal protective equipment – that’s the great thing about engineers, we can turn our hand to almost anything. We want to celebrate that.

The Women’s Engineering Society will be producing a supplement to showcase the winners of the Top 50 Women in Engineering 2020. The winners can also be seen here.

World Engineering Day Montage

Read more about BAI Communication’s commitment to improving diversity in engineering.