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Letters: Females in engineering: Are we hearing it for the girls?

Females in engineering: Are we hearing it for the girls?

May I add my contribution to Isobel Byrne Hill’s viewpoint (NCE 18 November) challenging whether it matters that female engineering numbers have plateaued.

Throughout my 44 year career as a civil engineer the role of women in the profession and how to encourage them to become engineers has been a frequent topic of debate.

I have come to the conclusion that in a world of free choice, the fact that the numbers coming forward has always been relatively small, notwithstanding numerous initiatives over the years, must tell its own story.

I do not feel that it is a lack of effort in encouragement or publicity that is the failing. Perhaps it is just a simple fact of life that the world of construction has limited appeal to females.

Maybe we should just philosophically accept that we have already reached the proportion of the female talent pool wanting to be civil engineers and that further initiatives are not going to make that much difference to those in the past.

  • John Haiste (F), 32 Florence Park, Bristol

I was delighted to see the recent two articles in NCE about women in civil engineering (NCE 18 November).

I am currently carrying out a small research project into this subject with my colleague Dr Mia Gray, the co-director of development at the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge.

With the help of the ICE East of England region we have carried out two online surveys of ICE members, looking at how civil engineers’ careers are formed and developed, and how they link to social and professional development opportunities.

Our research shows a definite correlation between gender and career progression, although we have not yet drawn detailed conclusions. As I believe that it is important to communicate to our profession that gender is an issue, I would welcome your continued focus on this area.

  • Alice Moncaster (M), senior research associate, Centre for Sustainable Development, Cambridge University


Business as usual?

With decreasing budgets a very real fact of life for the foreseeable future I believe it is now time to take a more radical approach to maintaining our highways.

In my former authority a Band ‘D’ Council Tax payer contributed around £38 a year to all aspects of highway maintenance together with some minor revenue funded
improvements. This is not a sustainable situation into the future.

Is it now time to consider reducing the length of highway maintainable at public expense, without reducing funding levels?

Two approaches come immediately to mind.

Firstly for new developments, authorities should only adopt a core highway network such
as bus routes or the primary access.

Developers should then be obliged to set up a trust or not-for-profit company to manage and maintain the ‘secondary’ road system.

It is possible, of course, that the authority could offer to maintain the secondary roads for the company, but I suspect at rather more than £38 per property per year.

Secondly, on the established network, where property densities are low highways could be considered for down grading to Byways Open to All Traffic, bridleways or footpaths, all with private vehicle rights for adjoining property owners.

The authority could then maintain a reduced width to a reduced standard with the owners of the private rights being liable for any costs of maintaining a higher standard should they so wish.

Brave politicians would be needed for either approach, but both could be seen as examples of the Big Society agenda where local people get more directly involved with service delivery. In either case the risk to votes is low and the cumulative loss of the £38 is also likely to be small.

Certainly the present situation cannot continue, where the council tax contribution from new property does not meet the maintenance requirement of the new, high quality, road they adjoin.

  • Chris Platts (M),


Big ideas for Boris

If we can solve all the ecological, environmental, archaeological, engineering, public relations, goods and people movement challenges for the London Gateway project on the north bank of the Thames (NCE 18 November), presumably we should be also able to solve similar challenges on the south side of the Thames for the proposed Thames Estuary Airport.

The two projects must have similar footprints, facilities and transport requirements.

Such an airport would, of course, then obviate any prospective needed expansion of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted over the next few decades, with the added bonuses of far less deleterious impingement on denser populated areas and also the high speed railway exists to whisk travellers speedily into central London.

No need for Heathrow Hub but maybe reuse Waterloo International for extra Central London rail terminus capacity.

If private funds can drive London Gateway, then presumably private funds could drive the Thames Estuary Airport.

  • John Franklin (F), 11 The Ridings, East Horsley, Surrey, KT24 5BN


How to fight the fires?

I read with some despair your report on Eurotunnel’s fixed fire suppressant system in the Channel Tunnel (News last week). I firmly believe that they are barking up the wrong tree with this idea.

The fixed installations described require the train driver to very precisely identify the required stopping point in the tunnel. Since the solution demands that the train be dragged at least one third of the way through the tunnel, the risk is that fire will spread from the first HGV to those adjacent.

Putting these stations “around a third of the way from each portal” puts them close to the crossover caverns which are around a third of the way from each portal.

Thus, if the driver makes a miscalculation in braking, or if the suppression system is overwhelmed (as suggested in your report), then the fire could damage the additional equipment in those caverns, thus creating more chaos and expense.

The operational consequences of each of the previous fires has been less severe than it might have been because the crossovers have been available to minimise the single-line running distance. Taking out either crossover will double the single-line running and thus double the consequential delays.

History shows that fires happen and that they will happen despite our best endeavours to stop them.

I believe that the best way of dealing with a vehicle fire on a shuttle train is to carry on to the other end where it can be dealt with in the open air.

Stopping in the tunnel guarantees extensive damage to the infrastructure and guarantees that a large number of vehicles will be burned out. Dragging the train through the tunnel may allow the fire to spread to some vehicles downwind of the seat of the fire but, I believe, fewer vehicles are likely to be affected than allowing them all to cook for several hours in a confined space.

  • Judith Rastall (M),

High speed rail: Independent views

Government may continue to refer publically to High Speed 2 being a done deal, in spite of the weight of reasoned argument against both its need and the current proposed route, but why is NCE supporting the conference HSR Summit: UK, effectively endorsing the government line?

HS2 Ltd admits that communities not directly connected to proposed hubs will gain no benefit. Operating at 400km/hr, every 100s, HS2 trains will mean hundreds of thousands suffering major financial and health problems from property blight and, whatever the proposed mitigation, from extreme noise levels, destroying communities, businesses, tourism and the environment forever, with minimal compensation.

Peter Wiltshire’s letter (NCE 18 November) focussing on population density disparity is but one example why the current HS2 proposals are in urgent need of proper independent review.

Other letters have exposed the flaws in alleged benefits that HS2 might bring, including its energy efficiency claims. On the web, point-by-point exposures of HS2’s business case myths are available to read for anyone not yet misled by groups like Greengauge 21, sponsored, according to its website, by at least twelve public bodies.

It is not too late for NCE to lead the nation in an open debate on rail capacity problems and regional regeneration, possibly including HSR.

  • Simon Griffiths,

Editor’s note: I absolutely agree that NCE should be leading the debate around high speed rail in the UK and as such would urge all those interested in getting involved with the discussion surrounding high speed rail to attend the High Speed Rail Summit on 16 and 17 February 2011 – for details visit

Letters to the editor

NCE welcomes letters from readers. We attempt to print as many as possible, which means letters longer than 200 words are likely to be condensed.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Sir,

    Re Females in engineering: Are we hearing it for the girls? In the Views & Opinion of 02.12.10.

    I was not surprised by the view of John Haiste in this weeks NCE. As a female Civil Engineer I have worked for contractors, consultants and presently a client in various locations in the UK since my graduation in 1991 and have worked with many male colleagues of similar longevity who can not imagine a different approach to work which might be more inclusive.

    Twenty years has seen some good improvements from some (what seems now) unbelievable excuses of "too expensive to provide a ladies toilet" and " no point in promotion as females give up construction to have children" and the often asked question "what is it like to have a mans job?". I find that bullying and verbal abuse are much less tolerated, career progression is clearer and pay may or may not be more equal; until salaries are disclosed through legislative changes this will be difficult to prove. In contracting the work and environment are stressful with long hours plus travelling leading to minimal family involvement for all workers. The recent economic downturn and increased efficiency drive will only exacerbate this problem. Improvement changes are too little too slowly as this generations expectations from work far exceed present deliverables and other professions do better in a lot of measurable indicators.

    I suggest the initiatives put forward in the past to encourage females into the profession have failed to understand that aspects of the profession need to change in order to encourage more females to train and to stay. We, as a profession can not afford to give up on 50% of the potential workforce, philosophically or practically. I agree wholeheartedly with Isobel Byrne Hill's viewpoint of 18th November.

    Louise Shaw (M),

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  • I have been a Chartered Civil Engineer since 1976 and really only found out that engineering existed as a profession through the lucky chance of securing a job with British Rail. Nobody had ever mentioned it to me as even a remote possibility during my school years. I wonder how different it really is now..., not much I suspect.

    Anne Chapman

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  • Re: Females in engineering: Are we hearing it for the girls? (02 December 2010)

    As a female working towards ICE membership, I’d like to comment on the issue of equal opportunities in the construction industry.

    First of all I commend the work of the Engineering and Marine Training Authority (EMTA) which ran a course for girls interested in sciences at the point that I was about to apply for university. This had a significant effect on my career path – but I wonder whether anything similar was provided for the boys I was at school with.

    I've found that my employer (Mott MacDonald) has a large number of female graduates, and I have not seen any fewer opportunities offered to us than to my male colleagues. As these graduates progress, in twenty years or so I would look for a change in the male:female ratio of managerial positions, which, as I would expect, is currently more male-dominated.

    I don’t doubt that in many cases the workplace is made uncomfortable for women, that they are overlooked, bullied, not promoted or given opportunities. We should continue to strive to eliminate this. But I would point out that I also know of men in the same situations.

    I would tend (from observation) to agree with John Haiste that the construction industry may be more suited to men than to women – not because of ability but because of preference, both in the choice of profession, and the level of commitment we give to it. It may be that we need to look to family and childcare choices, or further back, to the education system, to TV advertising, or to children’s storybooks, to find out why more women than men choose to work in different industries or in the home.

    Or maybe we just need to admit that men and women are different, science has shown that our brains work differently, and so the choices we make will be different. This doesn’t mean the industry should stop trying to employ women, but that its ultimate goal should be equal opportunities, rather than equal numbers on the payroll.

    Lizzie White

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