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Civils in danger of missing out on women graduates

Attending civil engineering conferences and industry events as a woman often gives me the distinct feeling of being the odd one out. It was therefore gratifying to see a room filled mostly by female engineers and infrastructure professionals this week at the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) summer reception.

It was equally heartening to see the number of men who had chosen to attend an event focused on women’s representation.

Among younger engineers she had met, the differences between male and female working styles tended to be much less pronounced

Highways Agency board director and chief highway engineer Ginny Clarke told attendees that the continuing low number of female graduates coming into the profession was “worrying”.

But she also said she had observed an interesting difference between the inter-gender working relationships of her generation and the newest crops of graduates.

Among younger engineers she had met, the differences between male and female working styles tended to be much less pronounced than those displayed by their senior colleagues, she said.

Getting through the door

The implication was that greater similarities in working styles was making it easier for women engineers to assimilate themselves into what is still a very male dominated industry.

If this evidence is accurate across the industry, it suggests that getting young engineers − a good proportion of them female − through the door could make a great contribution to creating a profession that no longer appears to the outside as an impenetrable boys’ club.

But at a time when the industry looks like a risky bet for jobseeking graduates, there is a danger that civil engineering will no longer make the longlist of female students’ career aspirations, let alone the shortlist.

There is a danger that civil engineering will no longer make the longlist of female students’ career aspirations, let alone the shortlist.

Current statistics indicate that civil engineering graduates have a one in 130 chance of getting a job, and even then starting salaries will be £2,250 less than the national average (NCE 30 June).

So what incentive is there for women to fi ght their way through as outsiders in a male-dominated industry where they will frequently find themselves − as Clarke put it − the only female in the room?

It would take considerable passion for the job to keep a person going in the face of the double disincentives of diffi cult job prospects and gender imbalance.

Cultivated over time

That kind of passion is cultivated over time, not manufactured at the last minute. But how many schoolgirls are well acquainted enough with civil engineering to take an active interest in it?

As the girls’ toy market becomes more monopolised by pink and princesses than ever, it seems unlikely that many little girls today are playing with toy excavators or train sets, and anecdotal evidence suggests that careers guidance in many schools tends to focus more on encouraging aspirations a pupil already has rather than introducing them to careers they may not have heard of before.

It is more important than ever to ensure that girls know what infrastructure is and how it comes to be.

With that in mind, it is more important than ever to ensure that girls know what infrastructure is and how it comes to be. This means that when the time comes for selecting GCSE and A-Level subjects civil engineering can be part of their vocabulary − and can be understood to be a potential career choice.

Groups such as the WTS campaign group do a great job promoting positive messages to women in engineering, as do successful figures such as past ICE president Jean Venables - who recently came out as the top “famous, outstanding or senior” female engineer in an industry survey (NCE 17 March).

There is also ICE fellow and Building Design Partnership civil and structural engineering chair Michelle McDowell who is this year’s Veuve Clicquot business-woman of the year.

Girls as well as women

The important thing is that these messages get through to girls as well as women.

This can happen through children’s events such as EngineeringUK’s Big Bang Fair, through publications such as NCE’s Insite supplement for teenagers − which relies on corporate sponsorship to make it free of charge for schools and individuals to receive − or through civil engineers talking to their young relatives about their career.

For many girls, simply learning about what civil engineering is could be the first step towards cultivating a passion for the profession.

Learning it at an early stage gives that passion a good chance of manifesting itself before crucial career decisions are made.

  • The challenge of bringing women into engineering will be a special focus within NCE’s Infrastructure Show 2011 on 17 to 19 October at the NEC Birmingham. For more information visit www.infrastructure-show.com

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