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Girl power is key to future of profession

COMMENT: Women in engineering

As you may have read on this week's Careers pages, the Institution of Civil Engineers' annual dinner tonight will feature an unprecedented all women table.

The organisers of this show of solidarity among the inevitable sea of black suits are not so much feminist campaigners, but passionate supporters of the future of the profession.

And by highlighting that there are women in powerful - and interesting - jobs in the construction profession, maybe it will inspire more female students to continue in the profession.

The fact is that the percentage of women students on civil engineering and built environment courses at university far outstrips the number entering the profession.

Clearly, something is going wrong between school and the workplace. My own limited experience of schools is that design and technology is something that interests girls as well as boys. Classrooms have, after all, moved on some way from the days of just heating and beating in the metalwork room or filing timber in woodwork.

But it cannot just be role models. Lack of information also plays a huge part in the problem - information about exactly what skills are needed in the modern civil engineering profession.

The great thing about modern civil engineering is the range of skills that are now required. No longer are we consigned to simply work with concrete, steel and tarmac. To tackle the biggest problems facing society increasingly requires softer, more social skills to analyse and improve the ways that people actually want to live their lives.

If the profession is to keep hold of its future and take a lead in issues such as sustainable development, mass transport, future power generation, waste management and flood control, we will need more than just an ability to design roads, railways, bridges and drains.

The reality is that much of this work will actually be more suited to women. So, if the profession is to survive, women will have to form a much higher percentage of civil engineers. The only way to make this happen is to give young women information about the options open to them and to show that it is possible to have a successful career in the profession.

Of course, on the other hand, many people - men and women - may see tonight's all women table as heavy handed. And by setting themselves apart rather than integrating with the masses, the women will alienate themselves from the main body on the night and in the future.

But come on! Let's keep a sense of perspective about this. The industry is so terribly under-represented by women at the moment, anything that can be done to highlight that it is not just a career option for men must surely be worth doing.

So if you are lucky enough to be attending tonight's do at the Grosvenor House Hotel on London's Park Lane, seek out this forward thinking table.

Rather than feeling awkward, pluck up the courage to have a chat. If you are not there, use the example to work out how you are can also help safeguard the profession's future.

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