· 3 min read · Features

The engineering gender challenge: Retaining female talent

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How transportation fluid additives developer Infineum is attracting and retaining female employees

There’s been a lot of debate in recent years on the need to encourage more women to pursue STEM subjects at A-Level and in higher education. For disciplines like engineering (where only 9% of the workforce is female) this is a particularly pressing issue – 64% of engineering employers report a shortage of engineers as a threat to their business.

Promoting greater gender diversity in STEM uptake will be key to securing a sustainable pipeline of future talent. However, for many engineering employers improving gender demographics isn’t just a recruitment issue. According to the Institution of Chemical Engineers as many as half of female engineers are choosing to leave their professions in favour of alternative careers or other lifestyle choices.

Infineum is a global business that develops transportation fluid additives – speciality chemicals that make engine lubricants and fuels work effectively. Like all high-technology companies we strive to employ the best STEM-qualified people we can find and, in the main, our employees will have chemistry or chemical/mechanical engineering degrees, often to PhD level.

Needless to say, an increasing proportion of the people we want to attract are female. This is to ensure we’re accessing the best people in the most relevant talent pools, but it’s also because diversity matters to business success.

When I joined Infineum in 2010 the average percentage of female recruits coming into our core technical functions in the three years prior had been about 25%. During the last few years we’ve made great progress and that figure has now increased to 40% – a gender balance we believe is broadly representative of the talent pools from which we recruit.

So for us, ensuring that our female employees stay with us and progress through the career ladder at a similar rate and pace to our male staff is a key priority.

In any career there are lots of hurdles that people have to overcome – I call this the ‘racecourse effect’. Some of these hurdles are corporate, some are personal, and some are social. Of these, the only hurdles we can directly reduce as a company are the corporate ones. What behaviours do we reward? How do we assess talent and potential? What assumptions do we make about people?

At Infineum we certainly work on all of these. For example, we run unconscious bias programmes, we survey our people periodically on D&I issues, and we have a set of ‘indicators of potential’ and ‘leadership expectations’ that we believe are observational rather than judgemental. We also have considerable evidence that our colleagues, male and female, find our workplace respectful and collegial.

All this is well and good, yet in the first 10 years after recruitment about three women leave us voluntarily for every two men who do so. It slows down over time, and equalises after about six years, but cumulatively that attrition rate makes a real difference to our overall demographics.

When we dig into this and look at the exit interviews we find that social and personal factors start to jump out. For example, more women leave us to follow a partner’s career move than the other way round, and there are a small but significant number of women who exercise their prerogative not to return to work after maternity leave.

It may be tempting to consider these factors as being outside our control, but there are things that we can do to minimise the hurdles for our female employees as they traverse these life events.

Last year we published a global flexible working policy, which sought to make it easier for people to work remotely, even in technical jobs. Of course, in a company like ours, where relationships and technical collaboration are key, this requires compromise. We also try to strengthen the ties that keep relationships alive and vivid through the maternity leave period, and make it easier to return to work.

Retaining as well as recruiting talent is of crucial importance to any business. At Infineum, as our STEM-qualified workforce becomes increasingly female and younger, we’re working hard to ensure our processes, work patterns and behaviours are sensitive to the needs of all our employees. Appropriate support mechanisms and flexibility options are now becoming a mainstream part of our employment proposition.

We want to make our racecourse easier to navigate so that as many of the starters in the career race – whatever their gender, culture, or identity group – get around the course successfully and cross the line with Infineum.

Ross Baglin is executive vice president, human resources at Infineum