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Women leaders are 'leaking' out of STEMM industries - Homeward Bound aims to fix this

06 March 2019

Louise Batts, a highways engineer from Buckinghamshire, explains how the prestigious leadership programme for women in STEMM can plug a skills gap in engineering and help save the planet.

Women leaders are 'leaking' out of STEMM industries - Homeward Bound aims to fix this

Homeward Bound is a ground-breaking initiative for women with a STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) background.

The aim of the programme is to provide 1,000 women globally between 2016 and 2026 with leadership, strategic, visibility and communication capabilities, to help promote women into decision-making positions affecting policy around the sustainability of our planet.

I’m part of the fourth cohort (HB04), which has just started the journey on this 12-month programme. It culminates in a three-week expedition to Antarctica in November 2019.

Gentoo penguin and the Ushuaia at Wilhelmina Bay. Image credit: HB16 Cohort
Gentoo penguin and the Ushuaia at Wilhelmina Bay. Image credit: HB16 Cohort

The problem is we’ve adapted to the environment – faster than it can adapt to us

Antarctica isn’t the focus, but the picture-frame for Homeward Bound. It represents the relative fragility of the natural world, but it is also an environment that can provide us with a lot of information about what’s happening on a global scale.

Engineers by nature are ‘doers’ and problem solvers. We, as a global community, have solved some of the biggest risks posed to us by the environment. We’ve designed earthquake-proofed high-rise buildings, sourced water to areas of drought, and built property-level flood defences, to give just a few examples.

We’ve adapted to suit the environment, and we’ve adapted fast. Faster than the environment can respond and adapt to us.

How has our ability to adapt affected our planet? Since the 1900s, human activities are estimated to have caused an approximate 1.0°C increase in global warming temperature. According to the latest IPCC report, a further rise of just 0.5°C between today and 2030-2052 would have very damaging impacts on many parts of the world and has the potential to make irreversible changes to our planet.

As engineers, we need to create opportunities to mitigate this situation. Our fantastic ability to be able to imagine, create, design and construct needs to be used further to reduce this real risk to our planet.

So, what are we doing about it?

Finding a representative solution

We’ve established engineers are critical to ensuring the future delivery of environmental protection mechanisms, but we can’t do this alone. We need to work collaboratively with multiple partners, especially those involved in STEMM, because these fields touch every aspect of our present and future.

How else do we need to collaborate? Globally. It’s not just one country’s issue, it’s every countries’ issue, and everyone’s issue, male and female.

But what if we’ve got a disproportionate representation of the global population in the STEMM community? That’s not going to produce a representative solution.

Excluding medicine, in the UK, the number of women in STEM industries is slowly increasing, and is now at 25%, according to the 2018 ONS Labour Force Survey.

The percentages in construction are surprisingly worse. Only 11 percent of the construction industry is female.

There are many articles trying to explain why the figure is so low, and many influential people, within ICE and the industry, are trying to improve these percentages.

Progress is happening, with nearly 58,000 women working as professional engineers today, more than double the number in 2013 (ONS Labour Force Survey, 2018).

So the future for women in engineering looks bright.

Plugging the leak

But there’s a leaky pipe for women in STEMM.

The efforts to recruit more women to STEMM fields is positive, but long-term retention of women in senior leadership positions is low.

If the leaks in this career pipe aren't addressed, we won’t fix the problem.

We all know engineers aren’t satisfied until the job’s done right. We need to plug this leak, because our thoughts and actions are influenced by those around us. We therefore need to be surrounded by diverse and inclusive groups at all levels of an organisation.

There is one person who’s challenged the world - female Australian leadership activist and facilitator Fabian Dattner, who founded the Homeward Bound programme.

Homeward Bound

This programme has an extraordinary vision that reflects her concern for the practice of leadership globally, the absence of women in leadership and fear for the future of our environment.

It has four core development components:

  1. Leadership development

  2. Strategic capability

  3. Visibility and science communication

  4. Science collaboration

HB04, the one I'm on, is the most diverse cohort yet: 100 women, encompassing 33 nationalities and 25 STEMM disciplines, which includes scientists, chemists, doctors, mathematicians, astrophysicists, oceanographers and engineers, one of which is an incorporated member of ICE (myself).

I believe Homeward Bound is a stepping stone in the right direction.

As engineers, we need to be involved in innovative, collaborative, global programmes and policies to protect the planet.

I’m excited to be starting this journey, and to see what comes. I want to challenge my preconceptions and increase my visibility to continue inspiring future engineers.

Follow Louise on her journey

You can follow me throughout 2019 on my website, where I’ll be posting regular updates.

This is an opportunity I want to share with other engineers, and hopefully inspire more ICE members, their daughters, mothers, aunties and grandmothers (there’s no age limit!) to apply for future programmes.

Application and programme information can be found here.