Role models can #TransformTheFuture – and change the world: #INWED19
21 June 2019
A group of inspirational engineers & entrepreneurs have identified role models as critical to women’s success in their round table discussion for International Women in Engineering Day, hosted by the University of Southampton's startup accelerator, Future Worlds & the IET.
Ahead of this Sunday's International Women in Engineering Day (#INWED19: Sunday 23rd June 2019), a panel of experts from the domains of engineering & enterprise convened at the University of Southampton to consider why more women don’t pursue careers in tech startups and discuss barriers to women’s participation in both environments.
Hosted by the University’s startup accelerator, Future Worlds, and the Institution of Engineering & Technology (IET), and comprising experts from the University of Southampton, the IET and the Future Worlds network, the discussion considered the experiences of women who study and work in engineering, as well as those who decide to launch their own startups – and ultimately, how to transform the opportunities for women in both.
International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) is an annual international awareness campaign to raise the profile of women in engineering, spearheaded by the Women’s Engineering Society.
The round table responded to the fact that (in 2018) women are seven times less likely than men to have a career in engineering (according to Engineering UK data), and five times less likely than men to build a business with a £1m+ turnover (according to the Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship) – and in particular, that a lack of visible role models and mentors was cited as a crucial barrier to women building careers in engineering.
Contributors included Virginia Hodge, Vice-President of the IET and a Future Worlds mentor, Southampton graduate, Shirin Dehghan, 3G pioneer, founder of Arieso and also a Future Worlds mentor, and Alison Vincent, previously CTO of CISCO UK.
Virginia Hodge opened the discussion, explaining that with 20,000 engineering roles currently unfilled in the UK, “The IET’s aim is to inspire, inform and influence engineers, the public and 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, as well as those from more diverse ethnic backgrounds, to pursue engineering.”
The conversation continued with analysis of the ‘leaky pipeline’ phenomenon, whereby women are lost at each and 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 from a young age is pivotal for the aspirations of girls and young women. By the time women reach university, they’ve likely already 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. But 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 offering you advice – but what is really powerful, is having someone who opens a door for you. But 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, Director of Future Worlds, commented on the “...perennial problem for startup founders” of finding the right mentor. “There are 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, identifying a trend among 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 more female-founded firms pitching to her during her time as a venture capital partner: “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 the University’s alumni network as 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 & 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 2 out of 25 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 now see coming to us for entrepreneurial advice and guidance, as well as 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 & 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, whose SaaS (software as a service) company, NewVoiceMedia was last year acquired for $350m, shared his first-hand experience of working to recruit more women: “Recruiting our first female developer was incredibly 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 added. “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 all 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 – and this would be truly transformational for future generations of women engineers.”
About Future Worlds
Future Worlds is the on-campus startup accelerator at the University of Southampton whose mission is to help our aspiring entrepreneurs change the world with their ideas. We inspire staff and students through engaging events, workshops and talks and helps accelerate the development of ideas into successful startups through space, access to funding and a network of mentors that includes millionaire investors, startup founders and industry experts.
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