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Gender quotas are not an answer

Look around any engineering company and the proportion of male to female staff is imbalanced at every level. This surely can’t be because women are excluded from the profession but more down to the fact that, for whatever reason, engineering seems to be a more attractive career for men rather than women.

If this is the case then why is the industry trying to redress this status quo by setting quotas for getting women into the boardroom if the current situation is representative of the workforce?

I am all for equal opportunities — but based on merit and not through positive discrimination as I believe that this approach will deliver short term gain and not long term changes in mind set.

As a new engineering graduate in the late 1990s I was on the receiving end of what some companies believed was a forward-thinking approach to change the gender imbalance in the sector. Quite frankly I found it insulting.

I went for one job interview where my interviewer kept repeating what the company’s female engineers did, which led me to ask how many female engineers it had.

The answer was one. And she was leaving. So when I was off ered the job — and on paper it was a good one — I was left wondering if I had won the off er based on my capabilities or as the token female.

Working on site I never experienced a problem with respect, so why did I feel that my engineering knowledge came second to my gender when it came to the management level above me?

It is this issue that has led to the development of quotas for women in the boardroom and a number of companies, such as Atkins, have signed up to achieving 33% by 2015.

But from talking to people in the industry it seems that it is the men that are in favour of quotas while many women have strong feelings against the prospect.

Speaking at NCE’s Infrastructure Show in Birmingham last week, Port of London Authority chairman Dame Helen Alexander underlined some of the pitfalls of the quota approach. “Women should reach boardroom positions in engineering based on merit not tokenism or box ticking,” she said.

Alexander does want to see more women in the boardroom but said that it is “not about having professional board sitters… It needs to be done by encouraging more women up through the ranks”.

According to Alexander, women represent 16% to 20% of the engineering workforce so many of the quota targets “don’t make sense”.

“We must look at what makes sectors unattractive to women — and men,” she said. “This is different to being kept out of positions by stereotyping and preconceptions. Girls make choices at 14 that come into play and this needs to be considered too.”

This is an issue that Arup director and global practice leader for consulting Alan Belfield believes is impacting on the female talent pool after women have studied engineering as well.

“It is not a case of there not being enough women studying engineering — they do but many don’t progress into careers in the sector,” said Belfield, who describes himself as the company’s global diversity champion. He said that Arup has targets rather than quotas and aims to have 15% of management positions filled by women and 35% of posts taken by female staff .

Arup’s approach is also about more than gender balance.

“Research carried out by Lehman Brothers proved that gender balanced teams are more innovative,” he said, “Other reports show that more diverse groups outperform homogeneous groups.”

So there is a real business case for the benefits of having more women at the top but I am unconvinced that quotas are the answer.

If a woman is talented and driven enough to reach that level then they will earn that position in the same way as their male counterparts do — isn’t that a kind of equality too?

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