Demand for female tunnelling engineers on the rise as industry enters 20 year boom

Female engineers are a critical resource needed to meet the skills demand for the current tunnelling boom warn experts ahead of national women in engineering day tomorrow.

Marie Ayliffe, associate director of tunnelling, AECOM

"We want more women in the tunnelling industry so that it represents society at large," says Martin Knights, Global Tunnel Lead at CH2M and former president of the International Tunnelling Association. "Women have been underrepresented and we want that to change."

Chairman of the British Tunnelling Society Roger Bridge agrees and points out that that the industry is undergoing an unprecedented boom.

“The next two decades is going to be the busiest that I have ever experienced,” he says. “We are looking at a 20 year boom and an ageing workforce so the jobs are there to learn the trade and the opportunities are there for people to progress.”

“The next two decades is going to be the busiest that I have ever experienced. We are looking at a 20 year boom and an ageing workforce" Martin Knights

Like other engineering disciplines, women have traditionally formed a low proportion of professionals in the tunnelling sector, not helped in some parts of the world by a superstition that women in tunnels brought bad luck. Bridge explains that the origins of this myth come from a combination of legislative rulings and tunnel incidents in the mining industry, from which modern tunnelling originated.

"The Mining and Colliers Act 1842 prohibited all females and boys under ten from working underground in coal mines," says Bridge explaining that this was a response to the exploitation of women and children in the dangerous coal mining industry of the early 19th century.

Although the law undoubtedly saved many lives, mining remained a high risk business and a great deal of superstition developed around working underground. When an incident occurred women would flock to the mines looking for their loved ones and so women near a mine were then considered a bad omen.

Perhaps the most high profile example of such superstition was former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clarke, who in her Valedictory speech of 2009 pointed out that on the campaign trail in the 1970s she was prevented from entering the 9km Kaimai railway tunnel which was under construction.

“I well remember a campaign visit in my support by Sir Basil Arthur, who was the Minister of Transport. He came to the Kaimai tunnel, but the superstition of the Irish and Italian tunnellers meant that I, as the candidate, was left at the tunnel head,”she said.     

"You  need a lot of self-confidence because sometimes in an important meeting you are the only woman and you might be leading that meeting,” Rosa Diez

Today though, women are being encouraged into the industry which needs more engineers in general. “I am a tunneller through and through and very proud of my industry and how we contribute to build a better society. Women, nowadays, play a key role in this," says Rosa Diez who began her career as a geotechnical engineer investigating tunnel failures.

“My first three projects were tunnel collapses, so people were then joking with me “don’t come near my project,” she laughs. Over the past 20 years she has moved on to designing tunnels and supervising their construction working for leading consultants. “Every day is different and brings its own challenges. It is never boring,” she says.

The nature of tunnelling itself, with a variety of designs and construction methods available depending on the ground conditions and the purpose of the tunnel, means that Diez has done it all from TBMs and pipe jacking to sprayed concrete lining, cut and cover and the more rarely employed immersed tube.  She has worked on some of the biggest schemes in the world and although she clearly loves her work she says that being a minority has been challenging.

“It has been tough. You also need a lot of self-confidence because sometimes in an important meeting you are the only woman and you might be leading that meeting,” she says. This has improved, she says, as more women enter the industry and companies work harder to retain their female engineers.

Although she has heard of the superstitions Diez says this has never had a negative effect on her. “When I was being sent to Portugal, to work on Porto Metro, there was some consideration as to whether I was the best person to send, because I was a woman. My boss had to double check with the project team. After a wait I was cleared and I did go,” she says.

“It became my best experience. I was still relatively young and given the opportunity to lead a big team. People respected me so I started to gain more professional confidence and gained a good reputation. I have contacts all over the world and have been able to employ people from that on other major projects that we are working on.”

"The UK certainly has a lot to catch up with in terms of the work/home balance that they have in Sweden and the make-up of the balance of male to female in the office,” Marie Ayliffe

From Porto she went on to work for Mott MacDonald where she remains a project manager for tunnelling schemes. This has seen her work in Norway on the Bergen light rail project, on a hydroelectric power tunnel in Peru and mines in Chile, as well as working on major projects in the UK. For women considering a career in the industry, she says the work is varied and interesting but not easy. However for Diez, who has managed to rise through the industry and raise a family, she would not have it any other way

Marie Ayliffe is an associate director in the tunnelling team at AECOM, based in Birmingham. She started out working in traditional structural design but after the recession moved in to heavy civils. This saw her work on projects all over the UK and overseas including a box jack culvert in Israel and designing hard rock road tunnels in Stockholm. Here she was impressed by the Scandinavian approach to work life balance and supporting working parents.

“I spent 18 months working on a project in Sweden with a local consultant and the UK certainly has a lot to catch up with in terms of the work/home balance that they have in Sweden and the make-up of the balance of male to female in the office,” she says explaining that the cultural differences start at government level with a more liberal view on time off for working parents. “It is more generous. Culturally and with legislative back up they seem to have a better system.”

Fortunately Ayliffe has never experienced any tunnelling superstitions but she says that among her peers there is discussion over the lack of women in senior positions across the industry. “The view we share is that a difficulty women face is that people often tend to employ people who they can relate to, so this is largely why there are a lot of men in senior positions. There is an unconscious or unintentional bias.”

Looking to the future Ayliffe acts as a mentor to tunnelling engineers in her team and says that it is an exciting time to be in the industry with several major projects planned and underway from the Thames Tideway Tunnel to High Speed 2. “It is a great time for young people to get in to the industry,”she says.

  • The British Tunnelling Society Young Members (BTSYM) group promotes the industry to young people in schools and colleges. Reflecting the growing number of women entering the profession the organisation aimed at under 35s, was founded by tunnelling engineer Kate Cooksey in 2008 and has had three female and three male presidents.



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