The IT and engineering sectors face unique but not insuperable challenges in creating a workforce that truly reflects modern society, according to a new report published by The Royal Academy of Engineering and Equalitec today (6 September). Researchers at Roehampton University compiled the report, Implementing Diversity Policies: Guiding Principles, specifically to encourage engineering and IT companies to diversify their workforces.

IT, electronics and computing in particular are major aspects of most businesses but there are skills shortages both in these sectors and in the wider engineering industry. The IT sector has one of the better records of attracting women within engineering but still only 20 per cent of the workforce is female – so a large reservoir of skills continues to go untapped.

The nature of work in IT is changing, particularly with the growth of offshoring and outsourcing, changing the skills needed by many companies. Many employers are now looking for employees with ‘hybrid’ skills – behavioural as well as technical skills. This is a combination which women in particular are seen as been able to contribute. However, the culture of many IT and engineering workplaces – macho, nerdy and involving long hours – can make it difficult for women to gain entry and reach their full potential.

The report calls on business leaders to provide vision and respond creatively to the challenges of improving diversity, in particular making succession planning more open and transparent and sharing data with other companies to establish industry-wide benchmarks. This is particularly important in addressing the gender pay gap. The new Gender Equality Duty may bring about change, says the report, as any private sector organisation that is seeking to provide a service for the public sector will need to show at contract stage that it is gathering gender-disagreggated data of various kinds – one standard indicator will relate to equal pay.

Making the business case is almost as important as effective leadership – at the simplest level linking cost/benefit directly to budgets. One respondent to a consultation on returners said “If it’s someone you know, who was a good employee, who wants to come back and they need £2,000 of training, but you’re not paying for an agency to recruit them, it’s a no-brainer from a business case viewpoint.”

The diversity agenda needs to be an integral part of the strategic business planning agenda – not something that is a ‘nice to have.’ Report co-author Cornelia Wilson puts it simply: “Diversity policies must be embedded throughout engineering businesses – like writing in a stick of rock.” The report contains many examples of good practice from a wide variety of companies to illustrate how policies on retraining and flexible working have paid dividends in staff retention.

“There’s a particular issue in IT and other technical professions in keeping up with the latest developments in the field,” says Professor Wendy Hall, Senior Vice President of The Royal Academy of Engineering and Professor of Computing at Southampton University. “This poses a problem for anyone with caring responsibilities or planning a career break. Employers could do more to address this, for example by allocating funds for training after career breaks in the same way they would for a new employee.”

Dr Elizabeth Pollitzer, Director of Equalitec, says “Attracting and retaining talent, and managing the workforce have become more complex with the impact of globalisation and social transformation driven by technology. Companies across many different industries are finding that the business case for diversity is not difficult to make - eliminating 50 per cent of the population is not an economical way to find the best talent. Companies need to be focused and active if they want to attract and retain more women. Workplace cultures which value work/life balance and offer different, more flexible ways of working and focus on output and results are good for women and for men.”

Notes for editors

  1. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the UK. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.
  2. Equalitec, originally supported by funding from the Department of Trade & Industry, and latterly the European Social Fund, was established to promote and support women’s employment in information technology, electronics and computing. Over the six years that Equalitec has been running it has worked with over 70 organisations to help build and disseminate good practice for employing and retaining women in ITEC.
  3. Implementing Diversity Policies: Guiding Principles will be published at Equalitec’s conference in London on 6 and 7 September: Knowledge and Skills for a Digital Future.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering