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Say it out loud, you’re feminist and proud

Efforts to tackle our industry’s chronic gender imbalance edged forward this week with news that leaders of 20 of the UK’s top science, technology, engineering and manufacturing companies have signed up to a 10 point plan aimed at boosting the retention and development of women employees.

Bosses from Atkins, Arup, Mouchel and Parsons Brinckerhoff are among the 20 who have pledged to tackle gender inequality by, among other things, seeking to change mindsets by challenging bias and sexism.

It is encouraging, as it is just what we at NCE have been campaigning for these last six months - for industry leaders to step up and take responsibility for driving cultural change throughout their organisations.

And if you take a look at the 10 points in detail, they are all undeniably good: who could argue against employers seeking to be creative in job design and make flexible working a reality for all? Or attempting to increase transparency of opportunities for progression? Or demonstrate to women that they want to retain them through career breaks and beyond?

In fact, that’s the only concern. These points are so obvious; so fundamentally reasonable that, if you were a woman, working in these companies, wouldn’t you be questioning why these things have not been done up to now?

And of bigger concern still, if you were a woman working for a company not signed up to this plan, you’d be well within your rights to ask what your employer is playing at.

After all, there are only four civils firms on that list of 20; and not one of them is a civil engineering contractor.

Why is that? The initiative is industry-led and some of the first 20 signatories have been involved in collaborating on what the steps should be. And while it’s industry-led it’s the brainchild of Women into Science & Engineering (WISE) and the Royal Academy of Engineering - and so some of the 20 are WISE corporate members.

But that’s not an excuse for some of our biggest names going missing in action: all chief executives were involved in initial discussions to reach out to their peers - so chances are they were asked.

There is still time to sign up. WISE is keen for more industry leaders to come forward. So please do.

And once you’ve done that, come to us too, as NCE is still looking for industry leaders to sign up to our equality campaign - industry leaders who are really prepared to “change mindsets by challenging bias and sexism”.

That’s more industry leaders like Highways Agency chief executive Graham Dalton, Aecom Europe chief executive Steve Morriss and Thames Tideway chief executive Andy Mitchell who proud to declare themselves feminists.

It’s essential. Why? Because as WISE’s latest figures show, there is still a huge way to go. While the number of women in professional engineering has doubled in number to 26,000 since 2012, this still represents just 5.3% of all engineers. That’s shameful.

And what’s worse, at technician level women are now actually in decline: yes, there are now 6,365 fewer female science and engineering technicians than in 2012.

So WISE’s 10 point plan is great; a one year opportunity for signatories to share experiences and discuss best practice. Sign up. Learn. But then come to us and shout - and shout loud. Nothing else will do.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor

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