The Princess Royal and industry figures recently gathered at an event marking diversity best practice.
“We are making a difference. Generally speaking there are many more businesses and educational establishments that understand that there really must be more openings for women.”
These were the words of Princess Anne as she opened the official headquarters of WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) in Leeds in early February and commended the work that the organisation has already done in inspiring more girls and women to build careers using science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
Princess Anne, WISE opening
The Princess Royal was speaking in her capacity as patron of the organisation and expressed her hope that the new headquarters would allow it to engage with more young women, schools, parents and companies.
“We need to spread the word more widely and I hope some of you here will help us do that in terms of the opportunities available for women in science and engineering,” she said.
At the event, WISE chief executive Helen Wollaston said there were still barriers to women working in construction. She told the story of a girl she had met at a careers event in Leeds who refused to consider a career in the industry because it was ‘dirty and a man’s job’.
“We’ve got to change those perceptions,” she said. “It’s not something WISE can do by itself. If you were to add together all of the people we can reach between us, through our members, through our employees, through the supply chains of some of the big companies here, through the students that are present at this college and the universities and other colleges in this region, and across the country we can reach a lot of people.”
Judging by the reactions to some of the interactive sessions and panel discussions at the event, Wollaston was preaching to an audience who had already embraced the diversity message. In one of these sessions, trainer and WISE associate consultant Fay Best challenged the audience’s perceptions about women and found them to be refreshingly enlightened.
Princess Anne, WISE opening
They knew, for example, that girls achieve marginally higher grades at all levels in science subjects and that a higher proportion of women were choosing science but not physics at all educational levels.
“If you’re an employer, can you afford to be missing out on these bright young people and not employing them?” asked Best.
The problem, she added, was getting these girls in the education system to convert their interest in the sciences into a career in engineering. We heard that three out of five STEM teachers don’t feel confident about giving careers advice about engineering while three out of four parents don’t know what engineers do.
“Young people are not being informed,” she said. “Pupils’ understanding of what engineers do has increased from 11% to 30% but that still means 70% don’t know what engineers do.”
To overcome these hurdles, Best explained how WISE had conducted research into the way the industry talks to girls and women about engineering careers. The resulting report, Not for People Like Me, concluded that it wasn’t engaging with girls in a way that they understood.
One of the conclusions of the report, was that girls preferred to describe themselves using adjectives while boys tended to describe themselves in terms of what they do – ‘I kick a football’ or ‘I mend a car’, for example. This meant women and girls found it hard to identify with engineering or construction job descriptions that outlined what a person would do in a role.
“Pupils’ understanding of what engineers do has increased from 11% to 30% but that still means 70% don’t know what engineers do.”
Fay Best, WISE
“It’s important that they can see they can be like you and that a job is not unattainable,” said Best.
The upshot of the research was WISE’s People Like Me resource pack and app. The pack equips teachers and STEM Ambassadors with materials that can show girls from a diverse range of backgrounds that, if they continue with at least one STEM subject, post-16, they are likely to have better prospects and more career choice. It also contains a quiz to show girls where people just like them are happy and successful in their work, which can also be downloaded as a free app from the Apple store.
By using the pack, girls can identify what kind of person they are from a list of 12 types conceived by the British Science Council and WISE. It then matches these types with potential careers, so a ‘communicator’ for example, could pursue a career as a quantity surveyor. The most important thing, said Best, was that girls and women had role models like them and visible career routes that would help them to aspire to be engineers.
The young women in the audience heard from just such a role model when Beth West, commercial director, HS2, delivered the keynote presentation for the day. She said the business case for gender diversity was irrefutable.
“Organisations that are successful at creating an inclusive culture have been shown to have 39% better customer satisfaction scores than those that don’t,” she said.
Showing a fine appreciation of WISE’s recommendation that employers talk about jobs in ways that appeal to women, West described HS2 in dynamic terms.
“HS2 is designed, built and will be operated in a digital context. This is not your grandmother’s Victorian railway. This is a software and technology driven railway. The trains we will be buying will be absolutely reliant on their software to run, and more importantly stop, at 360 km per hour.
“To deliver HS2 we need more people to consider a career in infrastructure as real interesting jobs but at the moment we’re missing nearly 50% of the population from the construction workforce.”
If you are a woman working in construction, WISE would like you to join its role model database so that you can help the industry engage with more young women. It is also calling for more corporate members. To find out more and to download some of the organisation’s educational resources, go to www.wisecampaign.org.uk
To share your best practice on encouraging gender diversity in the work force, please visit our discussion on this subject in NCE’s LinkedIn Group.
WISE panel discussion
At the opening event, WISE convened a panel discussion so that women who had pursued careers in construction could share their experiences. Here is a selection of quotes from the discussion:
“When I told my head of sixth form that I was planning on doing an apprenticeship in construction, her exact words were: “Oh, what a shame.”
Louise Verney, Balfour Beatty
“We get a more positive reaction from the elderly because often they’re quite frightened about having a male present in their homes and also those who have experienced domestic violence.”
Dionne Flemming, East North East Homes
“It was only when I went into industry that they really supported me. The careers advisors, they wouldn’t help me at all, so I think now I put a lot of focus on going in and speaking to careers advisors because I think they need to get on board and they need to educate themselves.”
Fionnuala McGowan, Laing O’Rourke
“My teacher encouraged me to do something hands on because I was quite good at making things. I wish there were more teachers like my technology teacher.”
Dionne Flemming, East North East Homes