Imperial College London

What does the 'average engineer' look like according to AI?

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Photo of 'average face' - a white middle-aged man in a suit, with a hard hat on.

The average face of engineers represented on search engines

For This is Engineering day, an Imperial PhD student and the Royal Academy of Engineering found out what the average engineer means to search engines.

Engineers are much more diverse than search engines give them credit for, and the subjects they investigate are much more varied...I’d like to see more subjects represented under the engineering umbrella – and more of the ethnically and gender diverse faces of those who lead them. Professor Nigel Brandon Dean, Faculty of Engineering

Imperial PhD student Stylianos Moschoglou found the ‘average’ engineer lacks diversity - both in the faces of the people and in the disciplines of engineering represented.

The Royal Academy of Engineering’s This is Engineering day, for which Imperial was a major university partner, aimed to counter the narrow stereotype of engineering as a field dominated by white men in hard hats.

In the UK, only 12 per cent of professional engineers are women, and only 9 per cent are Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME).

The Academy says a major barrier to attracting more diverse engineers is deeply rooted cultural perceptions of engineering as narrow, mechanical, too technical, and dull: a perception that’s being reinforced online, as Stylianos’ research showed.

He created an artificially intelligent algorithm that built a picture from images of engineers found on online search engines. Stylianos, of the Department of Computing, said: “The image of the ‘average engineer’, made by the AI algorithm, is of a white man wearing a hard hat.”

This is Engineering Day video

Imperial has pledged to make more representative images of engineers and to make engineering more visible to the public.

Picture of many tiny photos depicting the average engineer according to search engines. Many of the faces are white and have hard hats.
The face of the 'average engineer' according to search engines




Professor Nigel Brandon, Dean of Imperial’s Faculty of Engineering, said: “Engineers are much more diverse than search engines give them credit for, and the subjects they investigate are much more varied. From prosthetics, cancer detection and monitoring infectious outbreaks, to environmental solutions, big data and drones, I’d like to see more subjects represented under the engineering umbrella – and more of the ethnically and gender diverse faces of those who lead them.”

The Academy said: “The full picture of the profession is much more varied, yet this image is hidden from public view, not just in online search results. This has to change if we’re to attract future engineers into the profession who are much more representative of the society we serve.”

Multidisciplinary diversity

For This is Engineering day the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering put together profiles of their diverse range of academics. They said: "Engineering — including everything we do as electrical and electronic engineers — is at the cutting edge: from robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, to mobile phones, medical technology, advanced sports equipment and driverless cars, shaping the future all around us."

Meanwhile, Professor Sara Rankin of the National Heart and Lung Institute, and Dr Sunday Popo-Ola of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, ran engineering workshops specifically for BAME school pupils, girls, and pupils with specific learning difficulties.

  • photo of student projects and of Sunday with school pupils
  • Photo of person teaching

Credits

Video: Royal Academy of Engineering

Main image and image 1: Stylianos Moschoglou/Imperial College London

Slideshow images: Sara Rankin/Imperial College London

See the press release of this article

Reporter

Caroline Brogan

Caroline Brogan
Communications and Public Affairs

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 3415
Email: caroline.brogan@imperial.ac.uk

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