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Inspirational

Cover story - Women are making progress in the battle for equality in the engineering workplace but more needs to be done says Inspire Woman of the Year Joanna Kennedy.She spoke to Damian Arnold.

When Joanna Kennedy launched a scheme in 1984 to entice more women into engineering, she and her fellow trailblazers agreed that there shouldn't be a need for womenonly initiatives in 25 years' time.

By then, they assumed, women would have achieved equality with men in the engineering workplace.

Nearly 25 years later Kennedy has won the inaugural Atkins Inspire Woman of the Year award. The award is one of several handed out last week to celebrate the achievements of women in the construction industry (see box).

Kennedy is proud to receive the award but acknowledges that the very fact that it exists shows that her original prognosis was over-optimistic.

'When we launched Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) in 1984, we said that in 25 years' time we shouldn't be holding events like Inspire, ' Kennedy told NCE.

'But in some ways we haven't made as much progress as I thought we would, which means we've still got to be doing all we can to publicise the success of women in the built environment.' A survey published by Atkins last week to coincide with the awards shows that the profession is still missing out on many potential female engineers because they do not believe they will get the same career opportunities as men.

Consequently, successful women need to be showcased to show that the perception of a 'glass ceiling' in the profession is a myth, says Kennedy.

The 56-year-old Arup director is a good role model for women who take a career break to have their children and then work part-time and exible hours while they bring them up.

In fact, having chosen these career options for herself, Kennedy was actually promoted at work while she was working part-time so that she could raise her two sons.

Last summer she was appointed to head up Arup Project Management in Europe, which is responsible for major projects worth hundreds of millions of pounds, including the contract to put overhead electric cables in tunnels across the Olympic Park.

Kennedy is now in charge of many young women who can be inspired by her achievement.

Nearly 40% per cent of her 140strong London team are female, way above the industry average.

'I think it's helped that we have a lot of female role models at Arup in leadership positions, ' she says.

'Women joining the practice feel encouraged to progress themselves in their careers.' While much still needs to be done, things have improved considerably from 1972, when Kennedy first started walking on to construction sites as a graduate engineer, to be greeted with disbelieving and bewildered looks from men who had never encountered a woman engineer before.

Part of that improvement is down to female workers including Kennedy, pushing for changes in HR policy that are now enshrined in European law.

'There were several women at Arup, myself included, who, around 20 years ago, pushed for change in terms of things like career breaks and exible working hours so we could combine our work with having a family, ' says Kennedy. Her two sons are now at university and one of them has followed in his mother's footsteps to read engineering at Oxford.

'I was promoted while I was working part-time and so I demonstrated that I could take on signicant leadership responsibility while working part-time. I also did a lot of early work on promoting the idea of a career break at Arup.'

Attitudes in the boardroom are continuing to change, she says. Which is just as well because skills shortages mean construction firms cannot afford to deter female engineers.

'It's even more important for Arup and others to be progressive in these policies in future because skills shortages have led to staff retention being a number one issue.

'Young women entering the profession now are really ambitious and we've got to give them some really exciting challenges and leadership opportunities.' There are now quite a few women in the profession in senior management roles and the next threshold to cross is to get to get more women into the boardroom of consultants and contractors, she says.

'The number of women on the group board and regional board is something Arup has been looking at, ' says Kennedy. 'We are starting to see it happen.' Kennedy thinks a wide reappraisal of what makes a good leader, could further help women into the top echelons of the profession.

'There is an issue about the perception of the 'glass ceiling'.

I do think we do need to look carefully at our promotion criteria for leadership.' Kennedy says she doesn't want to over stress qualities that are meant to be associated with women. Women are not necessarily better than men at multi-tasking, communication and conflict resolution as characterised by responses to the Inspire research (NCE last week). But she does seem to suggest that men are perceived to be better leaders because they are more assertive.

'There are sometimes differences about what people see as good leadership traits.

Some women in leadership can use different skills in a different way and still be effective.

'People recognise more and more that good leadership is about facilitating effective teamwork and encouraging every team member while being clear about what the vision and objectives are and then being assertive when you need to be.' Kennedy's tkins nspire award also recognised her active involvement in professional and public affairs within bodies such as the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council. And these experiences have given her firm ideas on how to get more schoolgirls into the profession.

'In schools there are still not enough pupils doing maths and hard sciences and that needs to be addressed, ' she says.

'Then we need to do more to help girls find out what a career in engineering is all about. A lot of it is about getting young women into the office and showing them the environment.' Awards such as Inspire will help because it will encourage engineering firms to do more, she says.

'I hope the awards go from strength to strength. I noticed there is already good support from a number of companies and I hope that broadens out in the future.

'I feel both honoured and delighted to be the first recipient of this award.'

Inspire award winners

Woman of the Year Joanna Kennedy, Arup Future of the Industry Jo da Silva, Arup Civil Engineering Future star Ruth Hopgood, Expedition Engineering Outstanding achiever Sarah Buck, BSW Consulting Inspirational leader Arpinder Bansi, Atkins Highways Architecture Future star Laura Bayliss, BDP Lighting Outstanding achiever Valerie Evans, Atkins Design & Engineering Services Inspirational leader Jane Duncan, Jane Duncan Architects Construction Future star Sarah Hillyard, Tube Lines Outstanding achiever Jane Wernick, Jane Wernick Associates Inspirational leader Jane Nelson, Kier Building Maintenance (South) Quantity surveying Future star Chimwemwe Lungu, Turner & Townsend Cost Management Outstanding achiever Nicola Jameson, Franklin & Andrews Inspirational leader: Patricia Moore, Turner & Townsend

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