Yes, there are more female engineers—but numbers don’t tell the whole story

23 Nov 2023 · 4 min read
The many obstacles—both material and cultural—faced by women in engineering remain a challenge that threatens to thwart progress in gender equality.
Paola Graces, Senior Substrates Engineering Lead, Operations, Philip Morris International

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Paola Graces, Senior Substrates Engineering Lead, Operations, Philip Morris International


If you’re asked to picture an engineer, do you envisage a man in a lab coat? If your answer is yes, it’s not necessarily unconscious bias, because an overwhelming majority of engineers are indeed men. Despite the recent rise in female students enrolled on engineering degrees, many do not end up pursuing a career in the field.

I first encountered this gender disparity at university, when I was one of only five females in a group of 50 studying chemical engineering in Colombia. Of those five, only three females graduated. Encouragingly, the ratio has improved in recent years, with a 2021 study by the Salesiana Fundación Universitaria showing 27 percent of Colombian engineering graduates were women, although clearly there’s still room for improvement.

Although around 20 percent of U.S. engineering graduates are women, only 15 percent of U.S. engineers are women, suggesting that around a quarter of female graduates are not going on to build a career in their degree subject. 

Creating a workplace where women belong 

One issue may be the male-dominated culture in university laboratories and internship roles. As a student, I was acutely aware that I was in the minority and had to accept that this would be the gender imbalance I’d experience throughout my career.

Alongside this, I’ve found that men and women often interact and communicate differently, both on a physical and emotional level. And stereotypes can be stubbornly persistent when it comes to expected behavior in the workplace. For example, if a man is emphatic and loud when making a point, this is often perceived as authoritative. In contrast, if a woman raises her voice in the same manner, she can be perceived as emotional or dramatic. This means women, unfairly, face different expectations when it comes to the way they communicate.

Paola Graces,
Senior Substrates Engineering Lead, Operations
Philip Morris International

Another factor is that women can lack confidence in their skillsets. As a student, I sometimes found my male peers were more likely to take risks, whereas my female peers and I often held back under the perception that we should only contribute if we have the “perfect” solution.

I once read that perfectionism is the enemy of productivity, which resonated with me. I also read that some women are more selective or hesitant than men when applying for a job, suggesting they feel they need to meet more of the criteria of the outlined skillset. However, employers are looking for the right attitude and willingness to learn, rather than the perfect track record.

A range of challenges can prevent female engineering graduates from progressing into careers, such as loneliness, the “imposter phenomenon,” sexism, or workplace bullying. After graduating, I took a project management role working with engineers. But my longing to be an engineer was heightened by associating with them, and I always maintained that engineering mindset, enjoying problem-solving and yearning to play a role in designing and introducing new products.

A decade later, when I finally applied to Philip Morris International (PMI) for an engineering job, I worried my lack of technical experience would hinder my chances. But I showcased my transferable skills from my project management roles and insights gained through my work with engineers, while being transparent about any areas I was lacking. Fortunately, PMI recognized my skills and potential, and I was offered my first engineering role.

Female scientist in a Philip Morris International laboratory

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Celebrating diversity in all its forms

Many of my female peers in the industry often find themselves the only female team member, so I’m fortunate that’s not the case for me at PMI. I’m one of three female engineers in my team, and as a Latin American woman working in a male-dominated European team, the differences in culture and gender have been celebrated. Whereas previously, some may have misinterpreted my passionate communication style as “emotional,” my current colleagues applaud me for who I am. 

Some female engineers feel they have work harder to justify their position and prove they’re not just fulfilling a gender quota. But I’m grateful that my male colleagues empathize with my experience, endorse my knowledge, and provide me the opportunity to both learn and shine. 

Admittedly, a lack of female role models within engineering globally hasn’t helped—creating challenges with both the recruitment of female engineers and with making them feel accepted within their working environment. I’ve often found myself the lone female in a meeting with suppliers, which can be isolating at times. Fortunately, PMI is working to mitigate this and my director of engineering for example is a woman. I can also partially redress the balance within my team and work alongside my female engineering colleagues, sharing the challenges we face as a minority in the field. 

It is vitally important to have all genders and backgrounds represented in engineering because it enables innovation to develop and drive the products and services capable of meeting the diverse needs of the world’s population.

Don’t try to be a man

When it comes to feeling comfortable in this male-dominated industry, the first thing I would tell a female engineering graduate starting out is: Don’t try to be a man—just be yourself, because you’re hired for your skills regardless of gender. It is vitally important to have all genders and backgrounds represented in engineering because it enables innovation to develop and drive the products and services capable of meeting the diverse needs of the world’s population. It’s not just that women can give a different perspective to a project or problem. In some cases, they may be the sole target user of a product or service, so female feedback is crucial to success. 

Our male peers can also help by putting themselves in our shoes and considering whether the working environment may intimidate or exclude women. These attitudes need to continue evolving in both professional and educational environments, so that young female students and employees are encouraged to study and work in engineering. 

While increasing diversity in engineering is important, male leaders should take care to avoid “token” hiring—whether real or just perceived as such by male colleagues. Going forward, I think it’s important that women in engineering see their positions as more than just a job. We have a responsibility to make our presence known and champion other women in the field. Until there is gender equality in engineering—and indeed STEM industries in general—those of us already succeeding must be a beacon for future generations. 

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