Changing perceptions about engineering and creating a better world

With continued efforts to increase diversity and inclusion throughout various engineering disciplines, Naomi Climer talks to Infrastructure Intelligence about challenges, recommendations, and the changing landscape for the perception of engineering in the UK.

As the first woman president of the Institute for Engineering Technologies (IET), Naomi Climer soon established a key priority to change the perception of engineering, encouraging the future workforce to pursue exciting careers within the industry. 

As President at the IET, what have been your biggest challenges and how have you overcome these?

My main priority as President of the IET has been to promote the important role that engineering and technology plays in our everyday lives – and to try and share some of my own passion for engineering with others. It has always been a challenge to work out how we can make more young people aware of the huge variety of exciting, creative and stimulating careers in engineering. Championing things like the IET ‘Engineer a Better World’ campaign, which is all about changing perceptions of modern engineering among parents and young people, and particularly girls, is just one example of how I’ve gone about doing this.  

As the first woman President of the IET, have your views changed on diversity in engineering and technology during your time as president?

I’ve found that becoming the first female president in 145 years of the IET has acted as a great step forward in terms of inspiring diversity. We have good diversity with our board of trustees and I am so pleased to be part of an organisation that takes this issue seriously. However, just 9% of engineers in the UK are women. This has largely remained static since I became an engineer 30 years ago which is disappointing. 

My views on potential methods for increasing diversity have changed over the last few years as I’ve become frustrated at our slow progress. I know it is not always a popular view, but if companies published their recruitment statistics, this could act as a catalyst for action, as we have seen with increasing women in FTSE 100 boardrooms, where the target of 25% has been met. I was absolutely against such measures in the past but, I now believe that they could help take us take a step forward in our efforts to recruit more female engineers.

What would you recommend as actions to those just starting out to address forms of diversity and inclusion at their companies?

I would say for things like diversity there are quite often lots of small things that can be done, but there is not necessarily one single solution. Companies have to persist and endeavour to achieve a variety of smaller goals, instead of trying to tackle the whole issue with one approach. At the IET we have invested considerable resource over many years to encourage more people, particularly women, into engineering.  These include our annual Young Woman Engineer of the Year awards, our hugely popular online Women’s Network, and more recently, working with the union, Prospect, to provide guidance for employers on simple actions that can be taken to attract more women and to retain them. 

When you first came into the position, one of your goals was changing the perception of engineering. What initiatives have you seen that have positively changed the perception of engineering?

In the UK there is a perception problem of engineering with some people thinking it is about fixing or mending things, rather than it being about finding solutions to some of the major issues of our time. Research we conducted as part of the Engineer a Better World campaign showed that only seven per cent of parents felt that engineering would appeal to their daughters as a career. However, after seeing a little information on some of the careers available, both parents and children were much more interested in what the sector had to offer. In fact, 72% of parents agreed that they would encourage their child to pursue engineering as a career. This highlights the wider image problem of engineering in the UK and this is something we’ve worked hard to address.

I believe our Engineer a Better World has positively impacted parents and children including the IET’s Engineering Open House Day events. There are also other IET initiatives like First Lego League that continue to be impactful in engaging young people. I am also grateful to Tim Peake who has highlighted engineering in a very appealing way. 

Previously I was President of Sony Media Cloud Services, based in California. There, I noticed that engineers are understood to be doing things which are making a difference in the world and they have an almost rock star status as a result. Our work at the IET is centred on this image problem in the UK, which we aim to change, but it will take time and it needs all engineers to highlight the life-changing work they are doing.

What are the key ways in which the perception of engineering can be changed for the better going forward?

The stereotypical visual image of men in hard hats and overalls is certainly something we are challenging in the midst of this new and exciting engineering and technology landscape. The IET recently launched a new photo library of engineering images for journalists. It includes a wide range of images highlighting the exciting and creative side of engineering, which we hope journalists will use instead of the more traditional images. This will go some way to highlighting the modern, creative and exciting world of engineering.

From an education perspective, it will also be important to change the perception of engineering. Schools and teachers should be encouraging more girls to take science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) topics – which offer a gateway into an engineering career. 

Finally, the industry is still painted as a male dominant arena in lots of different ways. We need to change this perception to stop women from being put off by this, because they shouldn’t be. The percentage of women in the industry is still low, but for me, being a woman within the industry has not been an issue. In lots of ways it’s been an advantage, helping me to stand out and make an impression. We need to encourage this perception to help young women see that organisations with a diverse workforce in the form of different backgrounds, upbringing and sexes are more likely to come up with ideas and innovation that will be relevant to a broader range of society.

What do you hope to be the engineering and technology landscape by 2050? What will the composition of the UK industry be and what will the public’s perception of the industry be?

Engineering UK has said that the UK is estimated to need 1.82 million new engineers over the next decade, so you can imagine how this number will increase by 2050, particularly as technology becomes even more advanced and new discoveries are made. There will be all kinds of opportunities opening up for engineers, including projects for future engineers to work on that we can’t even comprehend yet. The scale of the future for engineering and technology is huge.

Another key aspect of the engineering and technology landscape is diversity. So, I would hope that the composition of the UK industry will be a lot more balanced. Currently, we are essentially missing out on 50% of the potential engineering population. Our efforts to encourage more girls and women to approach a career in engineering will have hopefully had an impact on the public’s overall perception of the industry.

In 2050, who knows what kind of technology we will be working with? I certainly hope that the public’s perception of engineering will be more accurate and less stereotypical. Over the next 34 years, I hope engineering will come to be seen as a more exciting career. I’ve done so many diverse things in my time because I’m an engineer and I hope more people will be able to see the opportunities and experiences on offer.

Naomi Climer is the president of the Institute for Engineering Technologies.