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The University of Southampton

Inspirational engineers and entrepreneurs identify role models as critical to women’s success

Published: 21 June 2019
Future Worlds round table
Experts from engineering and enterprise discussed barriers to women participating in both areas.

A panel of experts from the worlds of engineering and enterprise have convened at the University of Southampton to discuss the barriers to women’s participation in both environments, ahead of International Women in Engineering Day (Sunday 23rd June 2019).

Hosted by the University’s startup accelerator Future Worlds and the Institution of Engineering and 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, and those who decide to launch their own startups.

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 women are seven times less likely than men to have a career in engineering, and five times less likely than men to build a business with a £1m+ turnover, and that a lack of visible role models and mentors was cited as a crucial barrier to women building careers in engineering

The contributors included Virginia Hodge, Vice-President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology and a Future Worlds mentor, Southampton graduate Shirin Dehghan , 3G pioneer and founder of Arieso, and also a Future Worlds mentor, and Alison Vincent, previously CTO of CISCO UK.

Virginia Hodge explained 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 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.”

The panel identified that crucial to encouraging women to pursue these careers is having visible role models from a young age. 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.”

Professor Susan Gourvenec, Deputy Director of the Southampton Marine & Maritime Institute promoted the notion 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.”

Shirin Dehghan shared her disappointment at not seeing 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.”

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.”

Ashley Unitt, whose software 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.”

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Future Worlds mentor and Southampton graduate Shirin Dehghan (blue) joins the discussion.
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Professor Susan Gourvenec, Deputy Director of the Southampton Marine & Maritime Institute promoted the notion that "if you can't see it, you can't be it".
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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".
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