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Getting the balance right

Sara Thiam

Getting gender equality requires a sustained effort on many fronts.

The last week has been dominated by debate about Tim Hunt’s remarks on female scientists and women taking to Twitter posting pictures of themselves in the workplace wearing protective clothing and safety gear using the #distractinglysexy hashtag.

This has no doubt prompted many of us to reflect on the image which our own industry projects. How are we holding up in relation to other industries?

Employers understand the link between talent and business success, and the value a diverse team brings.

No business leader worth their salt would rule out 50% of the population when it comes to attracting and retaining the brightest and best, so why do women continue to be so poorly represented at all levels in engineering and construction? The reasons are complex and manifold.

Fewer young women choose science, technology engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at school, and if they do go on to study science and engineering at university few end up in the industry. We lose them again if and when they decide to have a family with many not returning.

The ICE’s “This is Civil Engineering” campaign is helping to raise the profile of the profession, more female engineers are coming into the public eye - helped by collaborations like National Women in Engineering Day and our work with Tomorrow’s Engineers - but the image of the industry as male dominated and unglamorous persists.

I believe we will only make real progress when we “see ourselves as others see us”. How welcoming are our dinners, social and knowledge events to women? Is civil engineering the kind of environment that our daughters and nieces want to pursue a career in?

Our ability to influence opinion is inextricably linked to the image we present.

The ICE has 10% female membership and even smaller numbers at senior levels in industry - we have a long way to go before meeting the Scottish Government’s call for 50-50 boards in the public, private and charitable sectors.

Having a female first minister and a 50% female cabinet in Scotland has certainly brought the image we project into sharp
focus. Our credibility risks being undermined unless women are more visible in our external interfaces.

The UK Government’s recent Review of the Role and Contribution of women to the Scottish Economy provides food for thought. It suggests a move away from identifying issues as “women” or “feminist” issues towards mainstreaming attitudes and behaviours around gender - not just in work but in wider society. It also suggests mentoring as key to unlocking women’s potential.

Many ICE members and fellows (male and female) are already mentoring, but I agree more inspiring role models who can support women’s careers and demonstrate leadership from school through to the boardroom are needed.

Women also need encouragement and support through transparency in pay, roles and training opportunities.

Clearly there are many solutions, yet no silver bullet. What is required is a sustained effort which seeks to address all of these factors in parallel.

  • Sara Thiam is director of ICE Scotland

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