Innovation with half the people ? – makes no sense

If you are a parent and an engineer in the UK there’s worse than a 1 in 16 chance you are a mother. The UK leads Europe in this depressing statistic. 

But there is worse news.


Debbie Stirling, founder of “Goldieblox”. Source:

This week’s talk at the IET in London by Debbie Stirling, founder of Goldieblox was a lesson in thoughtful, successful and cutting edge innovation but the talk highlighted disturbing facts behind the challenge she has taken on.

Goldieblox, founded in 2012 by Stanford graduate Debbie aims to “disrupt the pink aisle” by getting girls building with the construction toys that boys have dominated for over a hundred years.

Before Debbie told her story of frustration, discovery and successful innovation, current IET President, Barry Brooks set the scene and provided the first disturbing fact.

He said, as the event publicity had trailed, that “the IET’s 2014 Skills and Demand in Industry survey, reveals that only 6% of the total engineering workforce is female”. This figure sounds appalling doesn’t it ?  With 1 in 16 engineers being women, the chances are that an engineering innovation project has not one women at the table.  “Reveals” is always a great attention grabbing word, but sadly the real revelation is much worse – the 2014 figure is not a revelation at all. This figure has remained almost the same since the IET started the survey in 2008; the indications are we are sleep walking deeper into this exacerbation of the skills crisis.

The trend, such that it is,  from the report are:

women, UK

Source:  Skills & Demand in Industry, IET 2014

Barry put it bluntly that this in effect means that UK engineering employers are recruiting from only half the population. This is a hindrance to innovation and doesn’t make business sense.

Walk a mile in your customers’ Converses

Goldie and Nacho

Goldie and her dog side kick Nacho Source:

Innovation is a key route to wealth creation and the value that engineering brings in innovation has to be judged by people paying for a product or service. Around 1 in 2 of those consumers will be female.

While I can accept that it is possible to design for a customer outside your own demographic,  there is wisdom to be had from walking a mile in your customers’ shoes. If those shoes are going to be worn by Goldie, Debbie’s funky diminutive heroine then best we get some girls on the path to becoming product designers and innovators.  So, let’s get women involved in creating the products and services so that women and girls will buy them!  Being an engineer is a great (though not the only) start to making that happen.  Debbie and Goldieblox are a start-up success that taps into this notion.

So, if things haven’t improved on the proportion of women in engineering in the UK since 2008, we must be going all out to improve things in the next round of hiring ?  The IET report suggests more bad news concerning inaction by employers.  Gender is a key measure of workforce diversity and the report finds that the vast majority of employers are doing nothing to correct the problem.

“23% of organisations said that they do nothing at all to improve workforce diversity”. 

“Do nothing” was the highest scoring answer to the question “What actions has your organisation taken to improve the diversity of your engineering, IT and technical workforce?”.

Positives actions which you might imagine employers taking to improve diversity scored poorly –  “Female role ambassadors in schools/colleges” as an action, was identified by around 17% of respondents, with the same score for “Specific campaigns to encourage diverse groups”. These uncontroversial actions may be expensive for smaller employers, or for many in austere times, but even the most basic “hygiene” actions seem to go unattended – with less than 10% of engineering employers reporting having an “Equal opportunities policy”.  Engineering UK Ltd/plc needs to do more to reach the “other half” of the population.  Which brings us to the next bad statistic which astounded me.  In this matter, we are the laggards of Europe.

Professor John Perkins’ Review of Engineering Skills, published by BIS in 2013 also addressed diversity in UK Engineering skills and also makes troubling reading.  The source data are slightly different to the IET so the figures are a little different, identifying around 8.5% of UK Engineers as women (from UKRC analysis of the European Labour Force Survey, 2007).  This is the very bottom of the table of EU countries.

selected EU countries, 2007

Source: Professor John Perkins’ Review of Engineering Skills, Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS), 2013, quoting UKRC analysis of the European Labour Force Survey, 2007.

When the report came out, articles picked on the top performers in  this table ‘revealing’ that Latvia and Bulgaria both report nearly 30% female “Engineering Professionals”. Both are small countries with very different industrial landscapes to the UK;  the figures are also noted as “statistically less reliable”. So, what about our larger or closer competitors?

The message in the report is clear, for some reason women do not take up engineering as a profession in the UK in the way nearby and similar countries do.

Statistics published by the Women’s Engineering Society – WES show that is in fact the pipeline is leaky all the way along from school onwards.

 Another bomb-shell

Professor John Perkins Review makes a raft of recommendations across education, Government, employers and professional institutions.  Many of us may not be able to do much to directly change Government education policy , or many employers Diversity Policy, or the attitude of hiring managers – but many of us are parents.

On this note, Debbie dropped another bomb-shell about her journey to founding GoldieBlox.

Debbie graduated from Stanford in Product Design, but only took the subject as a major when an art professor suggested it.   “I didn’t even know what engineering was”,  she is widely quoted as saying.

Debbie told the IET audience that her father was an engineer, but she didn’t know it as a child – thinking he just spent a lot of time on a computer.

Professor John Perkins addresses this theme by looking at who has encouraged boys and girls to consider a career in engineering.  It’s a complex topic to pin an answer to,  but the results suggest a clear gender bias, especially enacted by the greatest influencers – family members.

Who has encouraged boys and girls to consider a career in engineering ?


Who has encouraged boys and girls to consider a career in engineering ? Source: Review of Engineering Skills, BIS 2013 quoting: Polling for Tomorrow’s Engineers Week

If you add up the family encouragement figures (Parent/carer + Other family member) for each gender, 45% of boys had family encouragement to be an engineer against around 20% for girls.  Perkins reports a similar concerning statistic when polling parents.  The Polling for Tomorrow’s Engineers Week study asked “Which career would parents most like that child to pursue?”.  Parents were equally keen (however keen or not that was) for their child to be a lawyer; similarly there was little difference between the genders for a Police officer, but the highest “gender gap” for any polled job was for the job of Engineer. A 9% difference was reported between between the percent of parents of sons vs percent  parents of girls who valued a career in engineering.  Parents of girls were far less biased (less than half as biased) against their daughter being a Scientist, Accountant or a Police Officer.  What exactly is that about ?

With more dislike than for any other job,  parents polled for “Tomorrow’s Engineer Week” did not want their girls to be engineers. 

So here’s the thing, let’s just say that:  Somewhere in the UK there is a talented child with an engineer dad and with the right steer they will be grand success, contribute to their profession, improve the world and perhaps have the satisfaction of helping inspire a new generation of engineers, who are both in demand in the workplace and suffering skills shortage. They are a nascent engineer.  If this talented child is a girl then it will take an art professor to spot, at the last major junction of most academic careers that she had an aptitude for innovative Mechanical Engineering.  It’s a good story if it falls the right way, but in reality it’s bad and a chance the profession should not be taking.

The action incumbent on all engineers is clear: talk to your daughter or niece about engineering!  – the choice is theirs, but it seems today they don’t even hear about the option. 

Innovation lessons from GoldieBlox

The Stanford course that  Debbie graduated from was Product Design, 2005. She explained that it specialised in human-centred design, which she is clearly suited to. You may find it surprising to that any product design is not human-centred, but following through on the approach it advocates can take concerted effort.  She gave some fascinating examples of how it has influenced her approach at Goldieblox.

Her desk research included reflecting on the fact that girls develop better verbal skills at an earlier age; this developed into a key component of the Goldieblox kits – a companion book which tells the story of Goldie playing with her friends and building things.  The girls follow along with their on-paper friend who is shown constructing handy machines to do useful tasks like wash her aqua-phobic pooch Nacho.

Boys don’t want to miss out on the fun, but engage to their own preferences. True to form, Debbie has found that the boys can tend to ignore the book completely and invent their own uses for pieces ( I believe this trend may continue in later life, but have not seen the research).

GoldieBlox use extensive user exploration as part of their design and innovation process – this means letting kids loose with prototype products. “We really couldn’t work without them now”, she says.

Another early finding which fits with the human-centred design approach was that in using construction toys, girls were more likely to become frustrated when some assemblies could not be constructed with perfect symmetry.  Hitting this obstacle makes them more likely than boys to give up,  thinking – why bother ?    At time she was using a rectangular peg board in a prototype; this was changed to an isometric gird – which allows the construction of perfect 5 pointed stars !

Pulling this all together:

  • Inspire more engineers. There is a great case for the GoldieBlox kits, or other similar concepts having potential to inspire potential young female engineers before the age of 10 or before they lose interest and become part of the statistics. The profession needs them.
  • Diversity helps innovation. The best way to have good ideas is to start with lots of ideas, and diversity of thinkers is one way. So, there is also a business case for making sure women are involved in design and innovation – this is the most fundamental form of team diversity.

Team diversity brings alternative perspectives to an innovation challenge; improves the diversity of opinions and potentially the quality of innovation

Dad ? Engineer ? 

Tell your daughter  and other things to do

Professor John Perkins makes far reaching recommendations in his Review to improve the gender balance in UK engineering.  At a more local level, you can do your bit too and you have a good chance of a satisfying result lasting a generation or more.

  • Talk to your daughter or niece about engineering;  how it can change the world, can be a force for good  ( or whatever they wish really !)
  • Hire women into your team to help innovation – it makes good business, equality and engineering sense.
  • Find out what a STEM Ambassador is (STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) – and become one.
  • Join inspiring the future and give one hour a year to talk to young people about your job in engineering or innovation and how it means they can use facebook in the car, charge their phones from solar power, or stream videos on demand from the ends of the earth ! 
  • Read the rest of my blog and pass on the link to friends and colleagues (just my little plug there).

Other references

Professor John Perkins’ Review of Engineering Skills, Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS), November 2013., Accessed 26 September 2014.  Quoting “Polling for Tomorrow’s Engineers Week” (EngineeringUK) and “UKRC analysis of the European Labour Force Survey, 2007” (UKRC is now WISE – Women into Science, Engineering and Construction)

IET Skills & Demand in Industry,  published annually by the IET. Accessed 25 September 2014.

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