The mix makes the difference

As an engineer, you can work with almost anything. A study programme at KTH opens the door to a variety of career paths and an opportunity to really make a difference within pretty much every sector of society. That whatever their gender or background, individuals should have the chance to be part of building the future should be self-evident. How hard can it be?

However, both a recent report  from The Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) and excitable social media threads over the years present a different picture.

The number of female applicants to engineering courses is still on the low side, around 25 to 30 percent, while the proportion of women who choose to study medicine, law or business administration, for example, is over 50 percent. Around 67 percent of applicants offered places at KTH are male and 33 percent female. And the higher up the academic nomenklatura, the more distorted the balance. Around 80 percent of all professors are male.

Many of our programmes have a good balance, while in computer engineering, information and communication technology and electronics and computer engineering for example, women are still underrepresented.

Why is it so important to do something about this? It is about trying to achieve “justice” or that grades are not counted, but quite simply a matter of quality. That women do not view all engineering areas as interesting enough to choose to study, is something I see as a failing in engineering programmes and engineering science. I am absolutely convinced that a broad mix of people, both women and men, contribute to areas developing more than if only one group is involved. Plenty of research indicates that a group with equal gender representation performs better than a single sex group. KTH activities aim to persuade girls and women to maintain the interest in engineering and technology that girls and boys possess at a young age rather than the tendency for older girls to lose their interest in secondary and upper secondary school.

I found the debates on what suits men and women respectively in the press this past summer that I followed, deeply disturbing. Various unscientific explanations that you may well have thought were long since thoroughly discredited re-emerged. Restrictive and biological definitions of how men and women behave respectively were presented as patronising explanations of us all.

KTH has, since 2015 , used the slogan “The future is too important to be left to men” in a campaign aimed at persuading girls to apply to computing, IT and electronics programmes. It has attracted a great deal of attention and there has been a certain negative reaction to it on the grounds that it discriminates against men. On the other hand, there have been long queues to get a tote bag printed with this inspiring slogan.

A great deal of work has gone into persuading more women to choose engineering and technology programmes. However, it is important to see the big picture and ensure that there will be attractive jobs waiting for engineering students on graduation. The target group is both younger girls and older females and activities revolve around sampling programmes and meeting students already at KTH. These are popular events and many girls have told us how they inspired them to enrol on a programme at KTH.

If KTH is successful in offering programmes that are attractive to women and men, this will help both the public and private sectors gain a more equal gender balance among their employees. Something we will all benefit from.