Article source: Future Worlds

Ahead of this year’s International Women in Engineering Day, Future Worlds hosted a roundtable in partnership with the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), to consider why more women don’t pursue a career in tech startups.

Comprising experts from the IET, the University of Southampton and the Future Worlds network, the panel discussed the experiences of women who study and work in the environments of engineering and startups, and how to transform the opportunities for women in both.

In the UK in 2018, women were seven times less likely to be working in engineering than men,[1] and five times less likely to build a business with a £1m+ turnover.[2] Virginia Hodge, Vice-President of the IET and a Future Worlds mentor, opened the discussion by highlighting the 20,000 engineering roles currently unfilled in the UK. “The IET’s aim is to inspire, inform, and influence engineers, the public and the government about how exciting engineering is, and I’m very keen that we increase the diversity of engineers, which means we need to encourage more women and also more of the LGBT+ community and those from more diverse ethnic backgrounds to pursue engineering.”

Alongside the reflection on the wider context, the roundtable also considered what action could be taken by Future Worlds to attract more women to launch their own tech startup and so transform the future. “I’m very keen to identify what’s within our power to encourage more women to pursue a startup journey,” Ben Clark, Future Worlds Director, commented. “This is a crucial piece of work for us over the next 12 months and beyond, to ensure we’re doing all we can to encourage women to explore opportunities through Future Worlds here at the University. There’s a huge amount of further talent and potential we could still unlock.”

The conversation started with analysis of the ‘leaky pipeline’ phenomenon, whereby women are lost at every stage of the engineering education and career pipeline. The panel noted that early education was crucial to ensuring that girls perceive engineering as an option available to them, and identified that having visible female role models in the field of engineering is pivotal for the aspirations of girls and young women.

The panel recognised that by the time women reach university, they’ve likely received myriad messages about how their gender affects their potential. Hannah Cordingly, a current STEM A-level student, shared her belief that there needs to be “a lot more encouragement” for girls to study engineering. “My parents are my role models; as they both work in medicine, I learned from them that I could follow a path in science. Not everyone will have those role models at home, so I think schools need to actively encourage an interest in science.”

Emily Smith, University of Southampton student and founder of ZWICH, believes it goes ‘back to basics’; “what you can see, or not see, in your surroundings dramatically affects your perceptions – I was not surrounded by women who work in STEM or business growing up – and these perceptions go on to influence the decisions we make about what we can be.” This was echoed by Professor Susan Gourvenec, Deputy Director of the Southampton Marine & Maritime Institute; “I think there’s a lot of truth in the idea that ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’. We all need role models, and more importantly sponsors. Sponsorship is often more enabling than role modelling or mentorship; you can have someone demonstrating a pathway, or to offering you advice, but what is really powerful is having someone who opens a door for you. Often people sponsor those they find affinity with, so they end up sponsoring people who are like them, which does not help improving diversity.”

There are parallels in the world of tech startups, with Ben Clark commenting on the “perennial problem for startup founders” of finding the right mentor.  “There’s so many more male founders that it’s more difficult if you’re a female founder wanting to find a mentor you directly identify with. There’s huge power in connecting people with role models who allow them to see that their ambitions can be realised, no matter who they are.”

In the investment ecosystem, seasoned investor Shirin Dehghan imparted her experience of mentoring female entrepreneurs, and identified a trend amongst her mentees that many women are encouraged from a young age to be very risk-aware.  “As an investor, I’d rather back a woman because I believe that they’ve thought about everything that could possibly go wrong. I don’t think women are necessarily more averse to risk, but they are taught to be more risk-aware.” Previously a venture capital partner at Series B stage, Shirin shared her disappointment at not seeing female-founded firms pitching to her; “I felt that as a female partner I should have been a magnet to female founders. I’d really like to see us break down the barriers to women’s participation.”

Visible role models were recognised as being well-positioned to help undo self-perpetuating false narratives that the fields of engineering and entrepreneurialism are not for women. Dr Alison Vincent, previously CTO for CISCO UK, identified that the University’s alumni network is a rich source of role models for aspiring engineers and startup founders; “There’s so much power in showing people what’s possible based on the people who have gone through the University before them. For me I think it’s very clear that I need to become more involved in mentoring.”

And it’s not only a case of identifying diverse role models to support women in their ambitions, but actively celebrating those who do, as acknowledged by Professor Gourvenec. “We need to ensure we’re rewarding women for having these advocacy roles. With so many competing priorities to meet expectations in our professional roles, we need to ensure that being a visible woman who is bringing about change for the next generation is work that’s recognised in the same way we’d recognise business development or grant success.”

Dr Kai Yang, Principal Research Fellow in Electronics and Computer Science shared her advice to other academics who are interested in enterprise; to find the mentor who is right for them. “When I started out, I had a limited network and no business connections. I really wanted to build my business, and I know that having a mentor who I identified with at the very earliest stage would have helped me very much. I’ve been to pitching events where only two out of twenty-five investors were women, and I do think being in those new environments is much easier when you have the advice of a mentor and the experience they can provide.”

The discussion considered whether the world of enterprise is simply less attractive to women, but found this not to be the case. Sarah Rogers, Head of Student Enterprise at the University, highlighted the important evidence that “50% of the people we see coming to us for entrepreneurial advice and guidance, and participating in funding and training opportunities, are women. This wasn’t always the case; we’ve paid a lot of attention to the language we use to advertise our services and ensuring that our offer is as inclusive as possible.”

Kamilla Aliakhmet, a member of the IET Young Professionals Committee who studied Electrical and Electronics Engineering in her native Kazakhstan, spoke to the potential for a mismatched mentor to deter women from pursuing engineering. “During my time as a University student, our academic supervisors also acted as our mentors. This meant that we were not matched with someone who could provide the specific advice we wanted.  I even had one supervisor advise me against getting married if I wanted to become an engineer! I would have really valued having a female role model who I could have identified with. I think I would have received much better advice.”

Future Worlds mentor Ashley Unitt shared his first-hand experience of working to recruit more women into NewVoiceMedia, the SaaS company he founded. “Recruiting our first female developer was very difficult, I believe this was because people need to see that there are others like them in the organisation, that they weren’t going to feel alone. It’s crucial to put the work in to reach the point of critical mass, where you have a diversity of role models who make it clear that this company is somewhere you can feel comfortable. You need to celebrate your success stories and profile your role models – that’s how you build momentum.”

“I’d advise that you don’t get hung up on the ‘role model’ label; as women in engineering and in startups, we’re all role models, no matter what stage we’re at,” Emily Smith said.  “Even now, I know people are looking up to me as an early-stage female founder; sometimes I’m the only woman in the room. No matter what I’m doing, I always try to remember that in being visible, I’m potentially encouraging more women to get involved.”

Virginia Hodge concluded the discussion by imploring those who work in engineering to examine their own biases. “I believe we should all consider what ‘unconscious bias’ looks like, and how we might be perpetuating outdated stereotypes, even those of us who are well-meaning. By addressing bias and becoming truly effective role models to women in engineering we can support women to excel – this would be truly transformational for future generations of women engineers.”

With thanks to all of the experts who joined the roundtable, and to Virginia Hodge and the Institution of Engineering and Technology for their support.

Want to transform the future? Here’s the panel’s advice.

[1] Engineering UK

[2] Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship

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