25/06/2015 07:19 BST | Updated 24/06/2016 06:59 BST

Women Engineers - Where Are They?

Yesterday began with setting a new world record for the most female engineers in one place. Given it took place just in London with little notice - 857 was not bad. But the real focus for the day was the missing or lost women engineers. 70% of women with qualifications in science, engineering and technology don't work in those areas, with around 22,000 women engineers having left the profession. This in a sector with skills shortages across the country and on which we are told our future development and prosperity depends.

The Women's Engineering Society organised a conference on National Women in Engineering Day to explore the issue, entitled "Engineering Women: Are they returning to work?" The statistics and stories from the women present illustrated the extent of the waste of talent and imagination when fully trained women leave the professions.

There are numerous accounts of how women engineers returning after a career break were expected to start at the bottom of the career ladder as if they had just graduated. We heard that women who take breaks of longer than two years, regardless of their previous seniority or achievements, often find it impossible to be re-employed in engineering. Prospect, the Trade Union which represents many women engineers, stated that in its regular surveys some women report they have been greeted with groans when they announced they were pregnant.

But not all the news was bad, other women reported supportive employers with innovative schemes and a flexible approach to managing a return to work. It became clear that many of the large engineering and construction companies now strive to hang on to their female employees. Remarkably Arup see 96% of their women on maternity leave return, while for Atkins the figure is around 90%. Less remarkable are the means they use to achieve this.

I have long argued that engineering needed to learn from other previously male dominated professions. It boils down to flexible working practices, ensuring those away on a period of leave are kept in touch with the workplace and provided with support when they initially return. Importantly many companies seem to have understood that to change the company culture they need to support men too as parents and carers. A company that enables its employees to manage work and family gains loyalty and commitment. A quarter of those working part time at Arup are men - moving to part time work no longer means moving down in the company's estimation, whether male or female. Efforts like these to retain skilled women engineers are to be welcomed and need to be widely copied by companies of all sizes to help stem today's leaky pipeline.

However what about women who are struggling to return to their previous profession? The Open University described a programme that they developed to support women who wished to return but struggled to even get interviews. Through the programme women work on the different aspects they need to develop to get back into the profession. This led to the development of a range of online resources which will be available to women returners. The Daphne Jackson Trust has long successfully run fellowships for women returning to research so the replication for other areas is long overdue.

Most impressive was the work done by the company Women Returners. They champion the introduction and uptake of so called "returnships" to Britain. Returnships are about supporting professionals who have taken a career break to return to their previous career. Women Returners have experience of working with a number of UK companies in different sectors. Their first experience in engineering was with the Thames Tideway Tunnel, one of Europe's largest infrastructure projects. Initially returning women were unsure whether they would be able to fulfil the roles, but within a short period previous experience began to show. Experienced women returning from career breaks were able to make positive contributions to the project much more quickly than a new graduate.

In a day of mainly positive contributions Kate Bellingham, the former Tomorrow's World presenter, launched her new online venture. Called School Gate SET it will encourage women engineers and scientists on career breaks to contribute their knowledge to their children's schools. Having helped herself in schools when her children were young she outlined the importance of women being role models for children, and mothers who are engineers have something to offer.

Dawn Bonfield, President of the Women's Engineering Society, came up with the idea of the National Women in Engineering Day. It has been taken up by universities, University Technical Colleges (UTC) and companies across Britain, national newspapers produced supplements and Radio 4 Woman's Hour covered it. The hashtag NWED was trending on twitter throughout the day with the big corporates taking the opportunity to showcase their female employees.

There are plenty of initiatives and lots of passionate and enthusiastic supporters. Most importantly some employers are changing the culture within their companies. Time will tell if these efforts will move Britain off the bottom of the league for women engineers.

Meg Munn is a Patron of the Women's Engineering Society.

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