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'Alexa, what’s an engineer?' Organisations hope to change image of ‘white men in hard hats’

Joseph Flaig

The organisations have created an online image library of engineering photographs to help change the perception of the profession (Credit: This is Engineering)
The organisations have created an online image library of engineering photographs to help change the perception of the profession (Credit: This is Engineering)

More than 100 organisations have come together to “change the face of engineering” after research found that online images disproportionately show engineers as ‘white men in hard hats’.

An artificial intelligence (AI) program used by the Royal Academy of Engineering analysed more than 1,100 images of engineers sourced online. The AI program, known as a generative adversarial network, then generated its own images based on that dataset. The majority of the generated images were white men in hard hats.

The results, released today (6 November) on This is Engineering Day, reflect a low representation of ethnic minorities in the profession and its online representation – 63% of images on the first page of a Google Images search for ‘engineer’ contain hard hats.

The current perception of engineering as white and male is “understandable” given statistics, said IMechE head of engineering Dr Jenifer Baxter to Professional Engineering. According to the Royal Academy, women make up only 12% of the UK engineering workforce, while only 9% are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

What the Royal Academy is really talking about is not what we look like, but what we do, and the possibilities for engineers,” she said. “I think that is misrepresented by hard hats.”

Although on-site work is key for some sectors, it represents only a small minority of engineering. Young people do not realise the breadth of possibilities, Dr Baxter said – engineers work in music, film and government alongside obvious sectors like civil and transport. The profession is also leading the way in decarbonisation, providing clean water around the world and creating advanced new medical devices, she said, with problem-solving at its heart.

“I think there is definitely a need to improve understanding of how science converts into engineering,” she said. “I think that is something that isn’t well understood in the school system.”

‘Unsung contribution’

Held during Tomorrow’s Engineers Week, This is Engineering Day aims to “celebrate the unsung contribution that engineers make to our lives”.

Engineers play a profoundly important role in shaping the world around us – from designing our cities and transport systems, to delivering clean energy solutions, enhancing cybersecurity and advancing healthcare – but that’s simply not reflected in online image searches,” said Dr Hayaatun Sillem, chief executive of the Royal Academy.

“We want to ensure that engineers are portrayed in a much more representative way, and that we help young people see the fantastic variety of opportunities on offer. Engineering is everywhere, and This Is Engineering Day gives us an opportunity to shine a light on the people who make possible so many features of modern life that we take for granted. I hope that, by inviting the public to discover a different side to engineering, we will be able to inspire more people from all parts of society to choose a profession that shapes our world.”

The Royal Academy has collaborated with more than 100 organisations for This is Engineering Day, to promote the work that engineers actually do. Amazon Alexa will answer questions about the role of engineers, Network Rail is showing real images of engineers on 60 screens at 15 stations and Facebook is promoting videos of its engineers. Other participating organisations include Google, Ocado, Transport for London and Rolls-Royce.

The group has also created a new online library of free images of engineers to help change perceptions.


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
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