The dominant thread from the ICE LinkedIn group over the past few weeks has been the gender imbalance in civil engineering. It has featured the occasional antediluvian explanation of why, even today, women are under represented in civil engineering.
Coincidentally, this week, I received an email from a woman member interested in some early examples of women in civil engineering who had attended a presentation on the history of the ICE.
There are some well-known 19th century examples - Alice Tredwell, the wife of Solomon Tredwell, who was responsible for the completion of a difficult contract over the Ghat mountains inland from Mumbai being one.
Her husband died almost as soon as he arrived in India, leaving Alice with the contractual obligations which she executed with the assistance of two young engineers.
Emily Warren Roebling, the wife of Washington Roebling, also famously defied historic gender prejudices in the field of civil engineering.
John Roebling, the great German born suspension bridge builder and wire rope manufacturer had successfully tendered for the design of the East River (Brooklyn) suspension bridge in New York; only to die of lockjaw soon after.
His son Washington, who had been on a study tour of European deep foundation practice, succumbed to caisson disease soon after construction began, and turned to Emily to act as his amanuensis.
Teaching herself about the engineering of suspension bridges using the Roeblings’ library, Emily saw the project through to completion.
Despite these heartening stories, as contributions to the Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers have found, it is difficult to find much evidence of the role of women in and outside engineers’ marriages.
It is only in recent decades that dedicated historians have been able to tell ‘her story’ alongside ‘his’. However, it is hard to believe that Emily and Alice were alone in their achievements.
Today, the statistics of female membership suggest that young women are being attracted into the profession, but retention in membership beyond their 30s is more difficult. The base line figure is, however, still low - no more than 20%.
Within the Learned Society we have challenged our technical expert panels to increase their female membership - currently around 10% overall. There are some concerns about this - whether we are encouraging tokenism rather than rewarding women on merit - and the dearth of women in some specialisms.
However, the latter issue begs the question “why?” As an institution we should be seen to be inclusive, and if grey, white, male figures continue to dominate our panels we will not be seen as reflective of the current talent pool.
In my recent experience women like Denise Bower (Capacity Building Panel) and Anne Kemp (BIM Action Group) have, as chairs, been setting our agenda. I can only ask women members who want to get involved with our panels to send in their CVs and help us change the image of the profession internally as well as externally.