In the UK in 2018, women were seven times less likely to be working in engineering than men, and five times less likely to build a business with a £1m+ turnover.
Ahead of this year’s International Women in Engineering Day (Sunday 23 June), Future Worlds, the on-campus startup accelerator at the University of Southampton, hosted a roundtable in partnership with the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) to consider how to transform the opportunities for women in both engineering and startups.
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. Often people sponsor those they find affinity with, so they end up sponsoring people who are like them, which does not help improving diversity.”
Ben Clark, Director of Future Worlds, commented 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.”
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.”
Virginia Hodge, Vice-President of the IET, 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.”