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How harmful stereotypes in the engineering and technology industry can impact recruitment

Op-ed by Dr Mark McBride-Wright

In the wake of the backlash to an advert posted by People Per Hour1, a company that uses their platform to connect freelancers with businesses, it raised the question of how harmful industry stereotypes can impact recruitment efforts. 

For example, at first glance, the title, ‘You do the girl boss thing; we’ll do the SEO thing’ might seem like a play on words, derived from the famous book by Sophia Amoruso; however, the Advertising Standards Authority didn’t agree and banned it for reinforcing ‘harmful gender stereotypes’. And rightly so. Using the word ‘girl’ when describing a female CEO is not only patronising, it’s dated. Thankfully, People Per Hour conceded and issued an apology.

Sadly, they weren’t the only company who belittled the efforts of those pushing for change and promoting diversity. During the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and subsequent riots across America, Pepsi released an infamous advert that showed Kendall Jenner handing a can of their fizz to a police officer, eliciting a smile and making the crowds cheer. The slogan, ‘live boldly’ was the parting message, which naturally saw the advert universally shamed for being insensitive. Even Dove – a brand that actively promotes diversity – missed the mark with their lotion advert, where audiences were shown a black woman ‘transform’ into a white woman after using their moisturiser. And we won’t even get started on Nivea (a German skincare brand) that ran a deodorant advert titled: ‘White is Purity.’

Thankfully, society condemned every one of those adverts. Yet, they are just the few examples that stood out enough to cause an outcry. If huge companies with massive PR and marketing departments are running commercials like this, then it raises the question of how many adverts slip through the net because of unconscious bias or ingrained stereotypes. How many subliminal messages are we subjected to on a daily basis? Whether we’re on the tube, at a bus stop, reading a magazine, or even visiting job fairs with leaflets and banners that have one ‘type’ of person on their cover, how affected are we by these ‘representatives?’ Do they shape what we think an engineer should look like? As a result, do students looking for a career in engineering and technology feel encouraged to apply?

It’s no secret that STEM careers are male dominated. Just 15% of engineering graduates2 are female, while only 13% of the UK STEM workforce are women2. The need to close this gender gap falls heavily on recruitment companies, especially those who push for greater diversity and inclusion in their placements. That said, if the candidates stepping through the door already have an idea about what gender they’re supposed to be, what they’re supposed to look like, and whether they’re going to be respected by their peers, is it any wonder the statistics are barely shifting?

For any real change to happen, how we market engineering and technology and how we present the industry to the public through advertising needs to diversify. We have to start challenging stereotypes – gender or otherwise – and we need to imbed diversity within every aspect of our organisations, ensuring any opportunity-seeker curious about a career in engineering is represented.

Written by Dr Mark McBride-Wright CEng MIChemE, Founder & Managing Director of EqualEngineers. www.equalengineers.com

References

  1. BBC News. ‘Girl boss’ advert banned for gender stereotyping. Source article: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-51032631
  2. STEM graduates. Background and Women in STEM Statistics. Source article: https://www.stemgraduates.co.uk/women-in-stem

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