Emma Nicholls is the founder of Your Red Dress Ltd – a company that helps organisations to attract, develop and retain female talent and supports women to accelerate their careers through VIP career mentoring programmes.

We caught up with Emma to get her thoughts on the importance of gender diversity and what can be done to tackle this issue in male-dominated industries like engineering. Here’s what she had to say:

1. According to our recent Voice of the Workforce report, half of engineers believe gender diversity is improving in their sector (51%). However, female engineers are more likely to believe that gender diversity is staying the same (41%), compared to males (35%). Why do you think this is the case?

This makes sense; women are more exposed to the lack of gender diversity in the sector and are more likely to be involved in dialogue and initiatives to try to change the balance. When I attend networking events or briefings around the topic, the audience are predominantly women. I often ask where all the men are! I co-hosted a breakfast event recently, which focused on how industry could bring more women into apprenticeships, and the audience was around 90% female.

Female engineers, because they are in a ‘minority’, are often asked to step into roles in their organisations where they promote women in engineering, either through featuring in the careers website, advertising campaigns for new recruits or by joining women’s networking groups to promote the cause. I would love to see more men getting on board with this issue, getting out to the conferences and events where these issues are discussed and start to support the cause more visibly.

2. A third of engineers believe addressing gender diversity is the responsibility of everyone employed within the industry, as opposed to solely being the responsibility of leadership teams or the Government. What do you think individuals and organisations need to actively do to address this? What kind of initiatives can they get involved in?

I agree that everyone needs to support and promote the challenge. As I mentioned before, I would like to see more men at networking and conferences that cover this issue. CEOs need to set clear targets on gender, supported with identified improvements which the wider workforce can buy into and support, such as:

  • Ensuring inclusive attraction and recruitment processes, with training on inclusive recruitment practises and unconscious bias for all hiring managers
  • Engaging more senior sponsors who are visibly taking action by sponsoring women
  • Considering using the apprenticeship levy (where applicable) to introduce ongoing career development for women. Apprenticeships are not just for school leavers; there are number of engineering apprenticeship frameworks that can be used to upskill existing employees and to attract new ones into the industry.
  • Offering development programmes for women to ensure there is a pipeline of talent for leadership roles. Women who work in a male dominated sector can struggle with issues that may not seem apparent, such as feeling they don’t fit in, or not getting the same level of sponsorship that their male colleagues may get and feeling like they are an imposter.
  • Ensuring and checking that the succession planning is inclusive - it’s not always the best ‘man for the job’
  • Sharing of best practice and learning lessons from sectors that are performing well on this issue; in the Voice of the Workforce survey, 72% of respondents from the Rail sector identified that gender diversity is improving compared with only 41% from the Industrial and manufacturing sector – how can sectors learn from each other?

3. Are more employers now recognising the importance of gender diversity and equality in the workforce? Is this shift being driven by the forthcoming gender pay gap reporting legislation?
Having worked in the engineering sector for many years, I have seen an increase in the energy and enthusiasm of discussion around improving the number of female engineers; particularly from women working within the sector.

However, as many sectors find themselves facing or fast approaching the tipping point for skills shortages, there needs to be a call to action by industry leaders to raise their game on this issue.  Positive intent is no longer enough; it will be the pioneering CEOs and their Leadership teams who will gain competitive advantage by tapping into the untapped pool of female talent who do not see the industry as attractive and rather ‘grey- suited’.

I don’t believe the gender pay gap legislation is a major driver because for many male dominated organisations, it will be hard to close the gap before reporting must take place (first data will be published in 2018). So, if an engineering company has a predominantly male board, their mean and median gender pay gap will be skewed. Organisations can then comment on the reasons for their gaps in supporting commentary when they publish their results.

It is likely (as engineering has been predominantly male for many years) that many of the senior roles today will be undertaken by men, skewing the pay gap. What I am interested in is what we can do today to start to change the board rooms of the future; we do that by supporting and sponsoring the ‘marzipan layer’ of female managers in organisations, the middle managers who are stuck between the icing (the Executive team) and the fruit cake (the rest of the organisation).

4. In our survey, providing better flexible working practices and reaching out to schools and universities to raise the profile of the organisation/industry are both seen as effective strategies to improve gender diversity. Why do you think people think these are the most important? Do you agree?

I would agree; flexible working is not just an incentive to engage and retain women. Today we have an ageing population and people are living longer. Many women and men now have caring responsibilities for elderly relatives. The engineering sector is traditionally macho and in my experience, the acceptance of flexible working is behind the times when compared to other sectors. We need a few more leaders to promote that they support it and evidence that being a flexible worker will not affect someone’s career adversely.

Working in schools is a long-term strategy and we must get more girls interested in STEM careers early. The industry needs to tackle this issue collectively because it’s hard to make any real impression acting alone. This is the reason why organisations such as the WISE campaign are so helpful, creating resources that employers can use in schools.

5. With females representing less than 10% of the engineering workforce in the UK, what more do you think needs to be done to improve this? And where do you think the problem is most prevalent – in the attraction or retention of female engineers?

Firstly we must make engineering careers more attractive to girls when they are at school, then ensure that the recruitment process is inclusive. The biggest issue by far is in the attraction of engineering to women; however, we also find that female graduate engineers are less likely than male graduates to work for an engineering company.

There is a phenomenon called the glass pyramid where women are ‘lost’ to organisations when they get to middle management level (also referred to as the leaky pipeline), so more must be done to retain these talented women. How can the engineering sector change its legacy? By embracing job shares, flexible working, women returners, and transform itself into an industry where women can flourish all the way to the top.

6. Your company, Your Red Dress, aims to make a difference in the field of gender diversity. What services does your company provide to employers looking to become more inclusive with their recruitment?

I focus on two key things:


  1. Recruiting more diverse pools of talent.
    I provide consultancy to organisations to enable them to create more inclusive attraction and selection processes so that they gain a wider pool of candidates. I deliver an Innovative ‘Inclusive Recruiter’ Workshop, which is aimed at hiring managers and recruiters to help them learn about what being inclusive means, discover their own potential biases and how they can use inclusive language to attract more female applicants. I help them to walk through a candidate journey from end to end and identify where opportunities exist for more inclusive practice to be implemented. This could range from something straightforward such as male dominated pictures on the careers website, where female candidates don’t feel they fit in, to reviewing the language they use in job descriptions so that they appeal to women more and attract more female candidates.
  2. Development and retaining female talent
    I run individual career mentoring programmes for women to help them reach their career potential. I focus on helping them to develop through a number of tools. Some examples include:
  • the creation of their own powerful career vision statement
  • an understanding of their personality type and how to relate it to others and become better influencers
  • how to avoid designer labels such as Tiara syndrome, Goldilocks syndrome, Imposter syndrome
  • how to create and identify who is on their support team and sitting round their personal board table.


Emma has 25+ years’ experience as a senior Organisational Development and Resourcing HR leader and previously worked in the electricity distribution sector. Emma is passionate about bringing more women into typically male dominated sectors.

To contact Emma Nicholls directly, please email her at emma@yourreddress.co.uk

If you would like to hear more about the perceptions of diversity in our Voice of the Workforce report, please click here.

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