What can we do to promote greater diversity?

To mark the third annual International Women in Engineering Day, Luisa Contini, project engineer at ISG, reveals how far the construction sector has come and how it needs to adapt to attract more women engineers, whilst tackling pre-conceptions of what it’s like to work as a female in a male-dominated industry.  

My fascination for how things are built began when I was a child. My dad owed a small construction company in our village and seeing and hearing about what he was doing inspired a lifelong passion. All my toys were building blocks or tools and you could often find me helping him on site during school holidays, so it seemed only natural to study for an MSc in civil engineering at Cagliari University. I grew up with an inherent appreciation of seeing something take shape and building things in different ways. 

The same can be said for most of my fellow university students. In fact, unless you had a family member or friends already working in engineering, it was very unlikely that you would end up studying the subject. I had a decent number of female classmates, but like me, the women on my course had already been exposed to engineering through a family connection and had not entered it blind.

Of those women, only a few of my fellow civil engineering graduates actually ended up becoming engineers. Most either built a career in quality control or in health and safety. However, I have been heartened in recent years to see the significant progress that has been made to educate young people of both sexes on the diverse roles available for engineers in the construction industry.

I am fortunate that I work for a company that is taking proactive strides to create a more inclusive and diverse workforce. We recently signed up to the Young Women’s Trust pledge to improve apprenticeships for women and my experience tells me that it is initiatives like this that will have a real long-term impact. Encouraging young women by offering them practical exposure to construction is the best way to ensure they choose a hands-on career in engineering.

But it is not just about getting more women to choose the career. It is about keeping them in their roles too and we can all agree that more needs to be done here. There are three areas that I would like to see us tackle as an industry:

1. Flexible working 

My company actively encourages flexible working, but the same cannot be said for the sector as a whole. Flexible working opportunities in STEM sectors are sparse with only 6% of engineering companies offering it. Women would be much more attracted to a career in engineering if they felt it was more ‘family friendly’ and offered career breaks and flexible hours to accommodate families. Generally, women aren’t encouraged to come back to work after having a family and this is a crying shame.

2. Addressing gender pay gaps 

Progress is being made to eradicate the gender pay gap and this is certainly not an issue confined to engineering. Typically the UK gender pay gap is 18.1% for all workers and 9.4% for full-time staff. A recent survey by the Young Women’s Trust revealed that women apprentices earn on average 21% less than men, are represented in a narrower range of sectors and receive less training. My hope is that within the next 20 years that this gender pay gap won’t exist. It’s important that the engineering and construction sector not only supports this movement, but is the driver of change. 

3. Celebrating female role models 

There has historically been a lack of female role models in the construction sector to draw in new recruits. We now have figures like Roma Agrawal, the senior structural engineer who helped deliver The Shard and inspirational women like her are doing a lot to attract new talent to the sector. Their work needs to be built on so that prospective engineers have people to aspire to. Moments such as International Women in Engineering Day give us the perfect excuse to reflect on progress and celebrate all that has been achieved so far. I hope we can pass on our passion and excitement to all those young girls, like me, that are stacking up their building blocks.

International Women in Engineering Day is on Friday 23 June and you can follow the conversation on social media with #INWED17.

Luisa Contini is a Project Engineer at ISG.