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Round table: Tackling the gender bias

Amid an engineering skills shortage, why does the UK employ the lowest percentage in Europe of female professionals in science, engineering and technology? An NCE round table debate attended by senior industry representatives discussed the issues. Ruby Kitching reports.

Ailie MacAdam (right) and Misti Melville

Crossrail leads the way: Crossrail’s Ailie MacAdam (right) sets out the stats with Hyder’s Misti Melville

Statistics from campaigning organisation Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) lays bare the dire state of the UK’s skills shortage - and the poor representation of women in engineering. The UK economy will require over 100,000 new professionals each year to 2020, and women make up just 12.3% of people in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) occupations.

Improving the latter should surely sort out the former, but attracting, retaining and advancing the careers of women in engineering is fraught with problems of perception, precedence and low pay.

Attracting women to enter engineering and to be successful in our industry is a big challenge.

NCE’s round table debate on women in engineering, held last month in London, brought to light a tangle of issues that besets women in engineering.

Hosted by NCE interim editor Mark Hansford and attended by senior male and female representatives from clients, consultants and contractors, the evening kicked off with a stark, recently published fact about the industry: representation of women in UK professional engineering is currently the lowest in Europe. Last month, business secretary Vince Cable labelled this an “absolute disgrace”.

Urged on by his comment, NCE and consultant Hyder organised the round table discussion to see how the civil engineers could make steps towards improving the situation, however small.

Claire Gott

Help at school needed: WSP’s Claire Gott says it took a great careers advisor to get her into civil engineering

To begin, attendees were invited to disclose their company’s gender split and whether there was a business strategy to reach out to more female engineers. Figures ranged vastly, from 12% to 70% women in all roles - engineering and non-engineering. The higher percentages tended to reflect the size and wider range of activities undertaken by larger organisations.

Women make up 70% of the 6,000-strong workforce at Nottingham City Council across a wide range of activities. But the numbers within engineering are considerably less.

“I am the only permanent female member of staff [of 20] across highway design, structures and flood risk,” commented Nottingham city council flood mitigation manager Fay Bull. “I really noticed this at first, but as I settled into the team it became less noticeable.”

The council has recently established a women’s network in light of the fact that the proportion of females across the organisation was not reflected at senior management level, and because there could be a perceived barrier to career progression. Similar initiatives existed in most of the companies represented at the round table, and those most aware and proactive about changing the situation generallyproved to be more popular with women engineers.

Consultant Arup boasts that 41% of graduates in this year’s intake were female (26% had been predicted) and, across the organisation, 34% of staff in all roles are women, with 15% in leadership positions. However, only one female engineer, director Dervilla Mitchell, has joined the Arup group board. Arup is actively working towards redressing this imbalance through mentoring and ensuring its policies and processes encourage diversity. It is work in progress, says Arup director Duncan Wilkinson, who chairs the company’s diversity group. The group was initiated by female engineers who were concerned that there could be an “unconscious bias towards men succeeding”, and has since evolved to encompass all aspects of diversity.

Round Table guests

Note: Originally the gender mix for attendees was 50-50, but due to unavailability, some of the male attendees were replaced by female, giving the round table a female bias.

Mark Hansford, NCE interim editor (chair)

Alexandra Wynne, NCE news editor

Ruby Kitching, freelance journalist

Misti Melville, Hyder group HR and communications director

Jackie Brennan, Murphy head of health, safety, quality and environment

Elaine Seagriff, Transport for London head of London-wide policy and strategy

Duncan Wilkinson, Arup director

Claire Gott, WSP assistant design manager

Fay Bull, Nottingham City Council flood mitigation manager

Allison Bowers, Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering highways and major projects bid manager

Darren James, Costain director

Ailie MacAdam, Crossrail project director

Shelley Galvin, Capita senior engineer

Alison Longstaff, Hyder consulting business director

Helen Samuels, United Utilities engineering director

Bola Fatimilehin, Royal Academy of Engineering head of diversity

Jane Simpson, Network Rail route asset management director

Chantelle Ludski, Hyder Consulting regional HR and change management director

Caroline Soubry-Smith, Hyder Consulting principal consultant

Vikki Skene, Balfour Beatty Construction Services director of reward and engagement

Wilkinson’s first experience of engineering was at university in the 1970s, when there was not a single female studying on his course. Things have improved since then: 15% of undergraduates studying engineering are female, but this is only up 1% since 2003, according to the UKRC’s report Women and men in science, engineering and technology: the UK statistics guide 2010. The guide also revealed that only 14% of female Stem graduates go on to Stem careers, compared with 33% of male graduates.

And here is where the tangle reveals its tighter knots and snags: construction and engineering are perceived to be unattractive professions, so even when the subjects are studied at undergraduate level, the majority of men and women do not enter the profession. Why? One reason is because the public still has an image of men in hard hats digging muddy construction sites.

“All the public see is people digging in the ground - girls don’t want to be digging around in muck”

Shelly Galvin, Capita

“It is seen as a tough and unglamorous job,” commented Costain director Darren James.
In recent years, contractors have started including viewing windows in hoardings to give some insight into what is happening behind the boards, but that could also give the wrong impression, according toCapita senior engineer Shelley Galvin.

“All the public see is people digging in the ground - girls don’t want to be digging around in muck. Unfortunately, they don’t see that there are designers and design managers who also work on these projects,” she said.

James added that educating parents, particularly those with children between the ages of seven and 12, about the breadth and depth of the industry could be beneficial.

“Children have fewer preconceptions at this age and are greatly influenced by their parents,” he said.

Educating teachers might be a futile exercise, since they are already over-stretched and would struggle to include off-curriculum material, commented Hansford.

Darren James

Education issue: Costain director Darren James felt that careers advice in schools was key

The good news according to WISE, however, is that as many girls as boys are studying Stem subjects at GCSE level, and girls achieve better than or equal grades to boys at GCSE in most Stem subjects.

Girls who choose to study Stem subjects at A-level are also more likely to achieve A* to C grades than boys.

The idea that engineering is inherently “dirty and outdoorsy” is not the only misconception. The public is equally likely to say that engineers are only involved in repairing washing machines or cars. WSP assistant design manager and former NCE Graduate of the Year Claire Gott admitted that, at school, while she was interested in all the right subjects to be a great engineer, it took a brilliant careers advisor and supportive parents to make her aware of how exciting engineering could be.

United Utilities engineering director - and mother of two - Helen Samuels felt she worked hard to be a female engineering role model through careers talks at local schools, but other factors have a greater influence on children.

“I wonder why people aren’t going into careers in Stem subjects?” she asked. “Why is the medical profession so successful at attracting women? The real tragedy following a natural disaster comes if we don’t get water engineers on the scene quickly enough to secure clean water and sanitation - much more urgent than the medical crews. How cool is that as a career - to make a real difference to people’s lives?”

“I am the only female member of staff across highway design, structures and flood risk”

Fay Bull, Nottingham City Council

Getting this message out to the public is part of the problem, all guests agreed. A child growing up meets doctors - male and female - and might later enjoy watching hospital dramas. Construction does not have the same exposure - at least not in a life-saving superhero way. Even Wendy only made it as Bob the Builder’s assistant.

There are more science, engineering and construction programmes on television these days, from CBeebies’ Nina and the Neurones to Channel 4’s Grand Designs, however. And United Utilities is, in fact, the subject of a six-episode series on BBC2 that started last month. It is admirable that the company agreed to being filmed - especially as it has no editorial control over the output. Although two female engineers will be featured in the first episode, the documentary will be entitled Watermen: a dirty business, and despite it being about “exceptional feats of engineering and human achievement that help provide water for millions”.

The female engineers at the round table all accepted that engineering is now far more welcoming as a profession than it used to be. “Inappropriate behaviour towards women was considered the norm, and even laughed at, which only encouraged more of the same. We have come a long way since then in culture, if not in numbers,” said Samuels.

She added that while United Utilities does not have a formal pro-woman’s initiative, 33% of the workforce is female, dropping to 25% in engineering delivery.

“Twenty-five per cent of the board are also female, and 38% of the executive board, which is extraordinary,” said Samuels. “When I attend an internal meeting, the first thing that people notice about the new director of engineering isn’t that I’m a woman. That’s an important cultural tipping point.”

Elaine Seagriff

Ambition: Transport for London’s Elaine Seagriff wants to increase the proportion of women in her organisation from 22% to 51%

Many of the companies attending the round table were able to report on overall percentages of women, but fewer could give specific numbers for female engineers. All acknowledged the number of female engineers in senior leadership roles was extremely low.

To encourage career progression to the highest level in a company, Network Rail route asset management director Jane Simpson’s advice is to be bold and proactive. “Take on projects that are risky or in areas that you aren’t comfortable working in,” she said. “These experiences allow you to develop your skills, network, confidence and capability. Staying in the same job, doing the same thing, expecting that ‘dream’ job to land, won’t.”

Discussions also revealed some disciplines prove more popular with female applicants. Consultant Hyder reported that 16% of its engineering workforce is female, but within its environment group, 63% are women.

Contractor Murphy head of health, safety, quality and environment Jackie Brennen asked whether this was because environment was perceived to be a “softer” discipline compared to civil engineering.

Brennen’s own technical team has a 50/50 split between men and women, whereas only 5% of the engineers in the company as a whole are female.

Within Europe’s largest construction project, Crossrail, women make up 29% of all positions (11 % in engineering).

Crossrail project director Ailie MacAdam is passionate about inclusivity, and her parent company Bechtel is proud of a 25% female representation in all roles and 14% in engineering roles.

“Everyone needs a support network so that you can dedicate time and energy to the job”

Allison Bowers, Balfour Beatty

“On Crossrail we see that, statistically, the more diverse the team, the better they perform. This is aligned with all the research out there,” she said. “We recently got together with all the contractors on

Crossrail and agreed that we’d roll out unconscious bias awareness training across the organisation.”

Mentoring is particularly important to encourage women engineers to develop their careers, she added, particularly to plug the “leakage” she has witnessed of women leaving as they reach 30.

Engineers might leave a company at around the age of 30, when many have become chartered (only 4.2% of registered chartered engineers are female, according to the Royal Academy of Engineering),to lever a promotion or a pay increase. But it could also be around this age when life-changing things happen outside work that profoundly affect their careers.

Firstly, to afford a flat or house, or support an expanding family, requires a certain salary. And, on the whole, engineers’ pay is low. Many engineering graduates do not enter the profession for this reason, and many that do leave to use their talents in an industry that pays more.

Secondly, particularly for women, babies play a part. For many, the cost and the problem of finding adequate childcare can break a career. Unless you are in a well-paid job, more can be paid out in childcare than is earned.

“For a woman to do well in a company, one way of keeping doors open is dealing with childcare. I’ve been through au pairs, nannies, the lot, and it is very stressful finding the right childcare that suits everyone,” commented Network Rail route asset management director Jane Simpson.

The sentiment was shared by Samuels and James, who added: “Childcare is an area for us as an industry to focus on - regardless of gender.”

An employer that is supportive of life’s changes will inevitably retain its staff.

Balfour Beatty construction services director of reward and engagement Vikki Skene told NCE that her firm was focusing on implementing family friendly initiatives such as career breaks, enhanced maternity pay, a “parent to parent” mentoring scheme and more openness to flexible working requests and practices.

“Childcare is an area for us as an industry to focus on - regardless of gender”

Helen Samuels, United Utilities

And Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering highways and major projects bid manager Allison Bowers felt that, while Balfour Beatty was male dominated in terms of numbers, this was not what characterised the company. Being committed to individuals’ needs helped staff to thrive.

“Everyone needs a support network so that you can dedicate time and energy to the job,” she said.
“Children are not the only commitment - single, childless people have commitments too.

A company’s support and flexibility - whatever the individual’s circumstances - mean you can dedicate the time and energy required for a successful career.”

Returning to the fact that the UK’s percentage of women in engineering is so low, it was noted that Bulgaria, Cyprus and Latvia lead the way, with 30% of their engineers being women. Asked how the UK could improve its measly 12.3% representation, Transport for London head of policy and strategy Elaine Seagriff admitted that her organisation’s ambition was to increase women’s representation from 22%to 51%, reflecting the gender split of London.

Through programmes specifically in place to help develop women, peer to peer reviews, job sharing and mentoring, she is hopeful of achieving this target.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Ivanka Brown

    Ha ha, that made me laugh out loud - “All the public see is people digging in the ground - girls don’t want to be digging around in muck”, “It is seen as [an] unglamorous job,” - as female geotechnical engineer who is not too hung up on glamour and quite enjoys digging around in the muck (mainly in order to confirm design assumptions), I would tend to disagree :-)

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