How Womengineer inspires the next generation of engineers

By Doug Bolton

How Womengineer inspires the next generation of engineers

In this week's episode of The Onlinification Pod, I had the chance to find out everything about Womengineer - an innovative organisation that is working to make a genuine difference in how leading tech and engineering companies work. If you think the engineering profession needs a more even gender balance, take a listen to find out more about Womengineer and how you can get involved.

My guest this week was Marie Ideström, the CEO and founder of Womengineer, a Swedish foundation that works to spark interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) among girls between the ages of 13 and 19, with a goal of helping more of them uncover their passion for these subjects and choose to study them in higher education. In the long term, Womengineer wants to see women make up half of all the engineers that graduate in Sweden in 2030.

Womengineer works a lot with education and inspiration, but the highlight of the year is IGEday, or Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day - a day when companies from a range of industries open up their doors and allow participants to speak to female engineers, learn more about what life as an engineer actually looks like and discover a potential future career path.

Some of the groups that Womengineer aims to reach are pretty similar to ours - for example, decision-makers at major B2B companies. But they place even more focus on connecting with teachers and guidance counselors at schools across the country, and especially on potential IGEday participants - girls and non-binary people who are considering what educational and career paths they might want to pursue in the future. This can be a very tricky group to reach, so I was interested in learning more from Marie about:

  • How Womengineer not only successfully reaches this tricky target group, but also manages to get them to sign up for IGEday
  • How the pandemic created new challenges and opportunities when a physical IGEday suddenly wasn't possible
  • What's coming up in Womengineer's calendar, and how companies can get involved

You can listen to this episode on the podcast platform of your choice using the links below, and there's a full transcription of our conversation further down if you're in a rush.

Most importantly, you can visit Womengineer's website to find out more about their work and discover how your company can get involved as a supporter or participant in the next IGEday.

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DB: Hello, Marie, and welcome to The Onlinification Pod. How are you?

MI: Hi. Thank you. I'm very well, thank you. It's nice to be here.

DB: How is life in Stockholm today?

MI: It's Monday here as well. A lot of snow since the past 24 hours. So it's quite nice. It feels it's much better than the the gray yesterday that we had. So, no, it's all good.

DB: Good. Good. Now, just because I'm sure there's some people who don't know what Womengineer is or what you do, maybe we could just start by you introducing yourself and Womengineer a little bit.

MI: Yeah, of course. So Womengineer is a foundation and that works towards inspiring and empowering young girls and non-binary across Sweden and also abroad when it comes to the engineering field and the STEM subjects, so science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the goal is to encourage them so that more, more females can become engineers. Because we see today there's quite a big unbalance between the genders in the engineering field. So we want to make a change there. We think it should represent how the population looks in general. So 50/50 men and women, we think that makes sense.

DB: Yeah. And what kind of balance is it today? You know, in the universities and in companies and stuff?

MI: Well, the fresh figure I have in top of my mind is from 2018, 2019. I know that when looking at the number of graduate or engineers who graduated that year, it was I think 30%. Just for that reason, I can't remember the actual figure. Was it 35% or 32%? I can't actually recall. But it's more or less 30/70 since when this was measured to begin with back in the seventies in Sweden. So it's been around 30% females. But ten years before that particular date, like 2018, 2019, back in 2008 when Womengineer was founded, that figure was down to 27%. So it's been there's a slow increase, but there's also been ups and downs. So it varies a bit. But women tend to be a minority still, and they have been since since day one. And we think that's a shame, we think that there are a lot of potential great female engineers who just haven't considered this this educational field.

DB: Yeah, exactly. So obviously on this podcast we talk a lot about communication and marketing and sales or that kind of thing. Who are the kind of groups that Womengineer wants to reach, I guess online and offline?

MI: Yeah. Yeah. Good question. So yeah, to begin with, of course, the girls in our target group, the primary target group, are the girls and nonbinary. So with one particular event that we focus a lot of our activities around, we call it Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. That's when we invite teenage girls, so between 13 to 19, to visit companies and try out what it's like to be an engineer for a day. So there we have teenage girls and nonbinary, that's one stakeholder group. But then obviously we have on the other end of this equation, we find the companies. So they are of course a very important group as well. They are the ones who welcome the girls and do the the inspiration part. We are just sort of a stakeholder in the middle to make these two groups meet, basically. And so the company is really important stakeholder, and with the companies I mean all companies across Sweden, basically, who have at least one female engineer within their employee group, that's who we focus on. Previously some years ago we used to talk about the companies as being only tech companies, but that's really not the case anymore because when you look at it, most companies today have some kind of engineering task force or organization. So we returned to all companies that have engineers among their employees, and then we have of course, schools is a very important stakeholder group as well, especially when reaching out to teenagers. They're not very easy to reach. And in the school personnel, like students, student counselors, teachers, principals, etc, they are also very important for us to reach the girls and target groups. And they know that this is an important aspect of understanding and evaluating potential educational ways forward. So they're really important, and parents, they're also a very important group. I could continue, but I say that these are the most important ones.

DB: And you mentioned that the actual participants in your events, you know, these young girls are challenging to reach, and we can come back to that. But you mentioned that Womengineer is kind of, you know, the enabler between these girls who want to participate and the engineering companies or tech companies. Um, and I remember I looked at your most recent report, and you've been quite successful as an enabler. I can't remember the exact figure of how many girls had taken part in Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, but it was quite a lot over the last few years, right?

MI: Yeah, Yeah. We've been very fortunate with that. So actually this year was the year when we passed, if we put together all the participants we've had since the start of IGEday back in 2015, we've had more than 10,000 participants this year. So we're very proud of that, of course. And this year we had 1,988 girls around the country, and also actually in the US who joined in and visited a company and was inspired with tech. And actually, I should mention another target group, which we've just started with now. We've started a new event, apart from the IGEday where we focus on teenagers, we also have another event that we call Womengineer Day, because we've seen that all the companies that over time have participated in IGEday, they share a common, more short term goal, being that they want to employ more female engineers, of course. So we realised that if we look at our all our channels and social media channels and everyone who follows us, the majority are actually women between 18 to 35. So this is also a stakeholder group that we're exploring right now. And with the Womengineer Day event, we want to also enable the chance for this group of newly graduated female engineers to meet with tech companies or other companies to explore their opportunities out in the work field. So that's another group worth mentioning.

DB: Definitely. So to go back to that thing about the target groups that we spoke about, a couple of them at least are kind of, you know, similar to to Zooma's, as in I suppose if you're trying to reach people at engineering companies, you know, that's kind of our ideal audience as well, kind of a decision makers at B2B companies in Sweden, basically. For those people, you know, I feel I kind of know what they want and how to reach them. You know, they're all on LinkedIn to start with, and I speak to them and work with them on a daily basis. But, obviously such an important group for Womengineer is young girls, maybe kind of 14, 15, 16, and as someone outside Womengineer, that seems like a really, really difficult group of people to try and get through to, just, you know, to reach, never mind to get them to sign up to take part in Introduce a girl to Engineering Day. So have you found that's a challenge, or?

MI: Yes, yeah, it's it's a very tricky target group to reach. They're very slippery. It's hard to to reach them and even more difficult to convince them that it is something that they should participate in. Especially I mean, if we think about who we want to reach here, we have I sometimes, in my mind, I group these girls into three categories. You have the ones that are explicitly interested in the STEM fields or engineering, and they will probably join IGEday, or I mean, regardless if they join IGEday, they will probably go this way anyway. And if they join it, they can get some affirmation that this is the right way to go, which is great of course. And then you have the girls who are not interested in this field at all. And of course not everyone should become engineers, that would be crazy. But the ones who are not interested, sometimes they can be signed up by a teacher, for example, and even if they attend, then they will get also confirmation that, yes, this is correct. It's not just an idea I had that this wouldn't suit me. I can confirm to myself that this is not my way forward, which is also great. And then we have the group in the middle who are not aware of their tech interests or that they could become really great in the engineering field. And those are, of course, the most interesting subgroup in this target group, if IGEday can become like an eye opening event for them, then we're really making a change. But yes, they're very slippery and very hard to reach and, yeah, it's always a struggle.

DB: You do quite a lot of work with social media, I know, and I guess, you know, based on just my prejudices, I guess that would seem like quite an important channel, considering what groups you're trying to reach.

MI: Yeah, Yeah, definitely. So we have Womengineer's volunteer based organizations. We have a lot of female engineering students and and they are really great at creating content on our social media. So I'd say that when it comes to reaching the IGEday participants, we focus on TikTok and Instagram above all. And then, I mean, creating videos, reels, it's all about that, making that snappy and fun so that we can capture their interest. That's, that's our main channel, I would say for reaching them, and then of course we have the school personnel, and they're easier to reach through Facebook, actually. There are some interest groups and groups of teachers where we can reach them. And then, of course, newsletters, LinkedIn to some extent. And then the companies are more LinkedIn and Twitter and so on.

DB: And, you know, you mentioned that obviously there are some teenage girls, you know, who are finishing school and maybe beginning university in a few years, who actually are interested in engineering or tech or science or something. And, you know, pretty much decided. But the ones who are kind of like in the middle, and not quite sure, and maybe discover this interest when they visit a company on IGEday, for example, what kind of misconceptions do they have or, you know, preconceived ideas about engineering and STEM careers? Do they have, and I guess how do you try and fix them, if they turn out not to be accurate?

MI: Yeah. Yeah. It's a good question, because funnily enough, I think, well, of course I work with this full time, so I'm, I'm into these topics all day long. But I think it's quite interesting in a way, that the misconceptions around the engineering field are still the same since so many years back. Then you thought that an engineer is a very, what's the English word, non-social or unsocial?

DB: Yeah, a very serious person.

MI: Exactly, a very serious person who doesn't speak with many people during their workday. They sit somewhere on their own and calculate stuff, often they're men and middle aged men who, you know, it draws the picture of a very boring work situation. I'd say not very creative or definitely not social and so on. So, I mean, the the one message that we have and that we keep coming back to is of course, to show the the enormous spread and diversity of the engineering field. You can do so many different things. You can be, we want to show the different faces of an engineer, you can look and be so many different type of personalities. And of course, lifting up those female role models, of course, that's one of our hypotheses that we work with, is that we need to put the spotlight on the female role models because that's going to make a big change.

MI: I mean, seeing is believing. It's nothing very controversial, but if we can just see someone who looks a bit like me or I can identify myself with that person, the step to starting to explore this field is very, very much easier than if I would only see people that I couldn't relate to. So that's what we try to do. Show the enormous width of what and who you can be and what you can work with. And of course, show all the the opposites of those misconceptions. It's a very social job, you can travel across the whole world, you can work with the sustainability development goals and do important things and create value that is important for humankind and the world in general. You can have a great impact with what you do. It's about problem solving. I think most of the time we come back to that message. It's about problem solving, and of course you can apply the problem-solving method on so many different types of of roles and jobs. So that's what we want to show. So we just keep on repeating ourselves over and over again in different ways by showing the different people working in this field.

DB: Obviously, I know Womengineer a little bit, and based on what you've said, the high point of the year really is Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, because that's I guess where the magic happens, you know, is when the people that you've worked hard all year to get to sign up actually get to experience life as an engineer for themselves. IGEday has been going for a few years now, when was the first one?

MI: Yeah, 2015. So we're preparing for our ninth consecutive year.

DB: Yeah. And it's a yearly event, obviously, so then you had a couple or maybe more IGEdays during the pandemic, when suddenly it wasn't possible to, you know, have a group of 30 people just go into an office for a day and mix and meet and chat to everyone. And obviously, you've mentioned that actually that kind of, you know, that point of meeting during IGEday is really the thing that makes a difference. So how did you manage that really, you know, making this kind of engaging, inspiring event when it was not possible to actually meet in person?

MI: Yeah, yeah, I see your point. And it was a challenge, of course, as it was for everyone, I guess at the time, and as you point out, it's the physical meeting that inspires the most. That's definitely our take on IGEday. So it was a bit of a setback, of course, and I think it was in 2020, we had IGEday planned for early April and that was like two or three weeks after the pandemic hit Sweden as well. So everyone had to pull the brakes and we had to make a quick turnaround and just think of something else to do. We had 1,600 participants who were ready to visit companies on that particular day, so we had to change it into a digital event and we just gathered some inspiring people and we talked about the engineering field and the digital setup, and we just broadcasted it so that everyone could take part of it anyway. But it definitely, it was a big change of how we had originally planned everything for. So that was 2020 and then we had to, you know, just contemplate bit on that and think about how can we change this? And I think at the time everyone, every company in Sweden, they just froze like, we can't do anything apart from the most absolute core activities in our business.

MI: And they didn't want to do anything else, which I can understand. But then if we think about it a little further, we concluded that, okay, there are companies that we can actually get on board for a digital day, so that's where we quite soon started to prepare for 2021. A digital IGEday is of course better than nothing, so we said, let's just go for that full on, 100%. And the companies that did get on board with this, we wanted to give them extra credit on doing this even though things were messy, and a lot of things were up in the air, like when I contacted the companies in November to ask them to join an event in March, they were like, "Oh, we don't even know how things are going to look tomorrow. So we can't we can't agree on anything at this point." But the ones that we did actually get on board, we gave them a lot of credit because they realised that, and I think more and more companies are doing that today, really realising the importance of long term competence and ensuring that they have competence in the long term.

DB: Make sure that there's, you know, engineers in the future that they'll be able to employ.

MI: Yeah, exactly. And I think more and more companies are realising that this is not a nice to have activity, this is a must have. So it's not an option to do it as a nice thing to do, like an extra bonus activity. It's rather, it's more critical than that. So in 2021, out of the 76 IGEday events that took place at end of March last year, 72 of them were digital and four had physical. And I joined one of those physical events. So they were all outdoors and they took, of course, all the precautions that had to be taken and to comply with all the policies and the rules related to the pandemic. But they did it anyway. And I think, yeah, they really did it really well. And a long answer to a short question, but I'd say the main takeaway from the digital IGEday was that it definitely adds value, not just to mention the fact that there are obviously teenage girls and non-binary people across all of the country. But we don't at this point in time, we're not we're not there yet that we can have companies in every corner of the country on board on IGEday. So the fact that we did it digitally made it possible for anyone to join, which was really great. So I think, out in the countryside of Sweden, that's where you may argue that the need for inspiration is even larger or bigger than in the big cities. So I think that was a really good takeaway. And we can still see today that companies, especially the big partners that we have, can arrange several events, they can have four physical ones and one digital, just to be able to reach the whole country. It was a very, yeah, very nervous and a tough challenge to go through. But I think we came out on the other end with some great insights that the digital set up can actually add some really important value.

DB: Definitely. So what's next for Womengineer in the near future? I know that Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day is the last Friday in March, right?.

MI: Yeah, that's right. The 31st of March next year, that's IGEday. And right now we're preparing well, we're signing up more companies, until the end of November it's possible as a company to sign up. And we welcome every company who has at least one female engineer among their employees. So that's what we're doing. But apart from that, on a more short term perspective, we actually have another Womengineer Day this Friday. So November 25th, we have Womengineer Day, I mentioned it briefly in the beginning, but it's a networking event, also digital. Because in 2021 last year, the digital IGEday, we had 1 300 participants, so it was actually definitely doable and the majority of them became more interested in the engineering field after IGEday, so it was per definition a success in that sense. And we argue that if we could arrange a digital IGEday for 1 300 teenage girls, then we could probably arrange a digital event for a slightly older and dramatically smaller group. So Womengineer Day targets those who are newly graduated or soon to be graduated engineers, and we keep it in a small group, A digital event, we have over 60 participants who will join in on Friday and they will meet ten companies. And we try to create this meeting with some new twists that we think will add value.

 It's all about supporting the newly graduated female engineers to reach their potential and to find a great employer, quicker than it would be, than it would take them if they wouldn't attend this event. So we want to make sure that all the female engineers that do actually reach the market can add as much value as quickly as possible, because we see that around, as we said in the beginning, it's roughly 30/70, the ratio between female and male engineers, and out of the ones who graduate every year, that equals around 1500 female engineers. And we want to make sure that all of them can come out in the work field and and add add as much value as possible, as quick as possible. So that's what we're doing right now. We have full, full focus on the Womengineer Day event. It's going to be really, really fun and very interesting. And of course, we make reports after every event that we do, we send out surveys, we analyse the feedback to make sure that, well, first and foremost, that we can learn and become even better. But also, of course, we want to give back to the companies that join our events and to show them that this is what this led to. These are the conclusions that we could draw from this event and that this is what you are a part of and so on. So it's going to be really interesting.

DB: So, I know that there's people who listen to this podcast who work at, well, certainly Swedish companies who have some aspect of engineering or, you know, tech or science or development or something like that, who obviously would do very well to get involved with Womengineer and support you in some way. So how, how could they do that?

MI: Yeah I mean we welcome all companies who are, who have engineers in the work field and ideally we want to reach out to every company in the country. There are so many companies, we only have like a few hundred of them that we collaborate with, but we welcome all of them to join in. That's the great thing with IGEday, it's a completely scalable event. We are the the enabler in the middle, and we support the companies with, this is what you can do, these are suggested activities that they can arrange during their own IGEday event and so on. Do this, avoid that, and so on. But the companies themselves, they run the IGEday event. So to reach our goal of ensuring that equally as many men and women graduate into the engineering field, we want to involve as many companies as possible. We want, of course, to have both quantity and quality. So we want to welcome all the companies to join in on this, and we want to share all the support that we can to make sure that they can arrange a successful and inspiring event. So to answer your question, companies can join, as I mentioned, it's the end of November, November 30th. That's the deadline for signing up as a company. So they can check out the outcome, see the information there on how to sign up and what's included as a partner and what it means. And then if they're also interested in getting some contacts with actual reputable female engineers, then Womengineer Day is, of course, the next step. So they're very welcome to reach out to me in all our contact forms on the website, they will end up with me. So I will be happy to reply to any of those requests.

DB: All right. I'll make sure to put some links to relevant pages in the description of this episode for anyone who wants to find out some more. But great, thank you very much for joining me. It was really, really good to hear a bit more about Womengineer, and good luck with all the events that you have coming up.

MI: My pleasure. It was really nice to to be a guest. So thank you for inviting me. And yeah, thanks for the nice talk and talk to you soon.

Doug Bolton
Doug has been a Content Producer at Zooma since 2021. Originally English, he now lives in Sweden.
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