Women in engineering - let’s raise the bar together

Alison Waterworth, senior project manager at AECOM.

It’s never been more important to pool the industry’s skills and enthusiasm to help smash through glass ceilings and gender pay gaps, argues Alison Waterworth.

It’s been three years since my last article for Infrastructure Intelligence, where I ventured that the task to fix the gender imbalance in the industry is one of “titanic proportions”. Since then, it’s been refreshing to see a clear and concerted shift in the energies of companies to hire more women, and hone their efforts to retain those that they already have. But is it enough? 

Focus seems to be on removing “unconscious bias” with hiring managers, which is then hoped to filter down through to the rest of the workforce. Unconscious bias, however, is a difficult area to tackle as it relates to those ‘known-unknown’ factors and is often the result of an individual’s experiences. Providing training to leaders to make them aware of the biased traits we automatically and unconsciously look for in our staff, and arming them with the steps to alter their preconceptions should be the aim of all companies in the industry, with the bigger firms leading this.  

The gender pay gap is another focus area for companies to work on. Since 4 April 2018, companies and public bodies with more than 250 employees are now legally obliged to publish their gender pay gap. Companies who fail to comply will be in breach of the law and will be chased through the courts according to the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Rebecca Hilsenrath, who says: “We have been very clear that we will be coming after 100% of companies that do not comply.” 

Reassuringly, in the weeks leading up to the deadline, many of the big companies did indeed start reporting their gender pay gaps, but it made for some uncomfortable discussions in the office, particularly when it became apparent that the construction industry was highlighted as the worst UK industry for this. What is even more scandalous is that many of the big names in the industry; those that should be - and claim to be - working at encouraging more women into the industry, have come out as top offenders. 

It is indeed disheartening to hear that a few well-known and respected companies I have worked with over the years have poor statistics according to the New Civil Engineer. I am pleased, however, to discover that Manchester Airports Group, where I am currently working on secondment at, has come out as one of the good guys with just 2.6% difference. 

According to the BBC, the overall figures show that 78% of UK companies pay men more than women on average. How do you explain that to your daughter who is currently sitting her GCSEs, hoping to make something of herself one day? How do you explain that to your partner who has juggled the family and ever-increasing responsibility at work for many years? How do you tell your mother and grandmother that although they brought you up to aim high and expect equality, this isn’t the case when it comes down to paycheques? It just shouldn’t be the case!

To combat this issue, Women in Engineering awards have been on the rise in the last few years with the likes of WISE, WES  and WICE  all promoting up-and-coming and successful women in the industry. But is this a step too far? I think not. In 2016 I became the proud winner of the European Best Young Woman Engineer Award at the WICE Awards. 

Whilst most of the feedback following this award was positive, I faced criticism from a small number of peers who claimed that I won this award because I was “only up against 5% of the industry anyway” – never mind the efforts I had put into my career to date! (I’ll give you three guesses what gender that person was…) This just confirmed to me that while we think we are doing a better job at gender parity in this industry, women still face bias and discrimination, and companies should give their full backing to these awards to overcome this. 

Other ways companies are aiming to overcome hurdles for women is through the development of women-only mentoring schemes, such as the mCircles scheme introduced at AECOM, which provides women with a forum to share experiences openly, and help them better understand how to address certain challenges. Schemes like these show that the company acknowledges there can be struggles for certain groups of people and is a positive step to demonstrating that they care about the cause. Other return-to-work schemes for colleagues who are returning to work after an extended period away, such as a maternity leave, are vital to improve retention rates and enable colleagues to return to roles that meet their development goals and those of the company.  

In the last three years I have been promoting engineering, with particular focus on diversity and inclusion in engineering, through various mediums including speaking on the main stage at UK Construction Week with the BBC’s Steph McGovern - a fascinating and intelligent woman incidentally - and am a member of the UKCW diversity and skills panel. I have become a member of the University of Leeds industry advisory committee with a view to encouraging more students to take up STEM careers after university and have been promoting the Institution of Civil Engineers’ “What is Civil Engineering?” campaign to the public through a short film describing the Manchester Airport transformation project.

So, what can you do to help? This year’s theme for International Women in Engineering Day on 23 June is ‘Raising the Bar’ so let’s pool our skills and enthusiasm and help smash through those glass ceilings and gender pay gaps, making the industry a more welcoming place for women. Visit your local schools and speak to kids and teachers about the exciting careers you can have in engineering, lobby your company to get their Diversity & Inclusion policies to be more inclusive, make it your goal to help and encourage others around you to achieve their goals, speak out about equal pay and don’t settle for anything less. 

Most importantly, we are in this together, so let’s promote positivity and boost others in the process of raising the bar.

Alison Waterworth is a senior project manager at AECOM.