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Women in engineering: Leading the charge

Companies throughout the construction industry are working out how best to attract, retain and develop female engineers. Ruby Kitching speaks to a leading client, consultant and contractor to understand their strategies.

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The proportion of female engineers working in the construction industry is somewhere between 6% and 13% - the lowest in Europe - with women making up just 10.7 % of the ICE’s membership. Initiatives to improve this percentage are driven in part by the notion that the more gender balanced a team, the better it performs.

In its 2007 study Women Matter: Gender Diversity, a corporate performance driver, management consultant McKinsey said: “Companies, where women are most strongly represented at board or top management level, are also the companies that perform best.”

In the current climate, therefore, it is not so much that it would be “nice” to have more women in engineering, or that there “ought” to be more; there “need” to be more for companies and the industry to be successful.

Accepting that progress has been slow, and will be slow without any concerted effort, organisations including Crossrail, Arup, and Bam Nuttall are adopting many-pronged approaches to understand what puts women off a career in construction and how to create an environment and working practices where women can thrive.

Ailie MacAdam

MacAdam: Business imperative

Former crossrail delivery director Ailie MacAdam recalls that 10 years ago conversations about women in engineering were based on “political correctness”, but more recently, the business imperative had come to the fore.

A change is required, she adds, because of the shortfall of suitable candidates to fill the top roles in engineering.

EngineeringUK, which promotes the importance of engineers and engineering to society, predicts that there will be 1.8M engineering vacancies in the next decade, and filling them will require the UK to double the number of people with engineering qualifications and triple the number of apprentices.

“It doesn’t make sense to invest in people and to lose them. The key thing is to make sure that a person can re-engage in their career”

Ailie MacAdam, Crossrail

MacAdam says that having men and women championing gender diversity is important for initiatives to take hold, and she applauds Crossrail chief executive officer Andrew Wolstenholme for being passionate about diversity.

He recently hosted a “women in construction” meeting attended by 350 senior members of Crossrail’s supply chain to share ideas about the need to support women in engineering.

“To get more people in engineering you also have to access the total population,” explains MacAdam, adding that this requires training those involved in recruiting staff not have any unconscious bias.

This training recognises that people are naturally tuned into individuals who are similar to them because of, for example, ­educational background, ethnicity or gender. Being aware of such bias should eliminate favouritism in employment and promotion.

The organisation is also encouraging its contractors to recruit a more diverse workforce by insisting they advertise all jobs externally, so new people enter the arena. Crossrail also undertakes “blind” recruitment, where names and gender are removed from applications.

NCE’s discussion with MacAdam highlights two issues relating to why women might not thrive in the male-dominated construction industry: lack of confidence in ability, and inflexible working hours.

At Crossrail, a women’s forum, diversity working group and mentoring programme create opportunities for senior women to act as role models for junior engineers, and to instil the confidence to succeed, while also allowing individuals to voice frustrations and concerns. These initiatives in turn help the organisation create more inclusive policies relating to maternity leave and flexible working to allow staff to balance work and family life.

“There is an increased awareness of the need to talk about the concerns and challenges of returning to work after maternity leave - it is now seen as a constructive and honest conversation,” says MacAdam.

“In my career, I have experienced a lot of positive, supportive behaviour and some pretty horrible things as well, dealt with by gritted teeth and tears”

Dervilla Mitchell, Arup

Crossrail’s statistics for the percentage of women in the organisation demonstrate an encouraging shift, since 29% of project managers, 12% of apprentices and 19 % of graduates are women.

Meanwhile, consultant Arup can be particularly proud of its track record in attracting women - 45% of last year’s graduate intake in the UK was female, and an all-female cast of graduates joined this year’s infrastructure (heavy civils) group.

Dervilla Mitchell

Mitchell: More diversity

“We offer interesting work and lots of opportunities in an environment where people can thrive,” comments Arup director Dervilla Mitchell, who adds that the atypical gender balance of last year’s intake was not intentional, but driven purely by recruiting the best people available.

“There was a time when we wanted to select candidates from Imperial [College], Oxford and Cambridge [universities], but now we are looking much wider to give us more diversity,” explains Arup director and diversity steering group chair Duncan Wilkinson.

Inclusiveness training and unconscious bias training has also given Arup interviewers the tools to appreciate a broader range of candidates.

“We are aiming for a workforce which reflects that of our clients,” explains Arup town planner and diversity and inclusion programme manager for the UK, Middle East and Africa Vicky Evans.

“There is a war going on for talent and we want to attract the best. That requires us to tap into all groups of people.”

Wilkinson says that, since the built environment is used by everyone, having a project team that most closely reflects “everyone” ensures a better chance of meeting the public’s needs. Otherwise the needs of, say, a wheelchair user or a parent with a pram might be overlooked.

Flexible working

Supporting flexible working is another way of keeping more doors open to talented engineers. There are engineers at Arup working a two-day or four-day week, with flexibility to deliver their hours however they want, explains Mitchell. “The uptake of flexible working from men is also rapidly increasing. Things are changing: our grandfathers may never have entered the kitchen, now there is equal sharing of childcare, so both men and women need to work flexibly,” she adds.

Initiatives within Arup include a diversity steering group, an inclusive leadership programme and the ConnectWomen network, which has organised an assertiveness course for women, and seminars where female directors map out their careers to inspire the next generation.

Mitchell is Arup’s only female director and the first female engineer to join the global Arup group board, and is clearly a role model for many in the organisation. She is also happy to share the fact that the path to success is never easy, regardless of gender.

Having proudly led Arup through major projects such as Portcullis House in Westminster and Heathrow Terminal 5, she says: “In my career, I have experienced a lot of positive, supportive behaviour and some pretty horrible things as well, dealt with by gritted teeth and tears. What has kept me in engineering is that there are a lot of interesting challenges and the feeling that we have made a great contribution.”

Contractor Bam Nuttall’s drive to address the issues faced by women in the industry is based on wanting to understand why 25 to 35-year old women leave the profession.

Steve Fox

Fox: Losing out

Chief executive Steve Fox is keen to have more gender-balanced teams, and is encouraged by the fact that 20% of its graduate and apprentice intake are female. His concern lies with how the proportion diminishes higher up in the company - currently only 7% of senior managers are women.

Championed by Fox, Bam Nuttall has embarked on a programme to understand the gender split throughout the organisation, barriers to success, and possible solutions; and eventually plans to implement policies to encourage more women to stay in the profession.

Unexpectedly, Fox’s first barrier was convincing some of the firm’s female employees that there was a problem. Site agent Emily Short and business development manager Kate O’Connell both felt that no extra support was necessary to help women succeed in the organisation; they had not perceived any barriers and did not consider themselves to be different to their male colleagues.

“But on seeing the statistics, we realised that we could do something which would benefit women coming into the business,” says O’Connell.

Fox, O’Connell and Short are part of the team that leads support group Women@bam. Its structured programme includes monitoring the number of women in the organisation and holding forums to raise the profile of the group, discuss the issues faced by women in engineering, and offer networking opportunities.

Kate O'Connell

O’Connell: Realisation

Feedback and scrutiny of statistics is already influencing policy and practice in the firm, from the words it chooses in advertisements to how performance reviews are handled and how line managers support career progression.

The group is learning that the culture of working long, unpredictable hours can discourage women, and promoting job-sharing and flexible working is one way of encouraging women to stay.

Fox says the firm’s strategy to improve the proportion of senior level women is long term, and based on an appreciation that a balance has to be struck between family life and work life - a balance that changes over time.

“You might have a child at 28 and return to work at 40,” he explains. We have to say, ‘how will we get you back in? How do we recognise that this isn’t a new starter, and how they can they benefit the business?’

“Historically, those people just go, and the industry loses out,” Fox adds. “It doesn’t make sense to invest in people and to lose them. The key thing is to make sure that a person can re-engage in their career.”

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