International Women's Day highlights industry's "titanic" equality challenge

With International Women’s Day just behind us, the question of gender equality is really a hot topic at the moment, particularly within the construction industry, says Alison Waterworth, AECOM bridge engineer.

In recent years, since the ‘Women on Boards’ Government report by Lord Davies of Abersoch, which stated in February 2011 that “At the current rate of change it will take over 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK”, many companies have announced their commitment to bringing the genders into alignment.

The problem is that the imbalance exists at all levels in the industry, from graduates to board members, and the task itself is one of titanic proportions.

The IABSE Future of Design Conference North 2015 in Manchester is on 27 March and will feature an audience participation debate entitled “Should there be Quotas for Women in the Workplace?” chaired by Infrastructure Intelligence’s Antony Oliver. Details of how to attend are here.

It is encouraging to see that some of the biggest engineering firms have realised that they must tackle gender imbalance head on, and many have proposed targets for themselves. In September 2014, AECOM’s chief executive for Europe Steve Morriss announced the company’s mission to have up to 50% women in the workforce, a target that he considers to be no different to that of achieving zero accidents on construction sites.

However, to achieve these targets more needs to be done to challenge the stereotype that it is a man’s industry, and to promote the vast opportunities available to women. Whenever asked what I do for a living, I get the same reaction: raised eyebrows and a look of disbelief as they imagine me laying bricks or tinkering under a car bonnet.

One parent at a careers evening I attended thanked me for giving them some food for thought on account of how ‘normal’ I seemed for a female engineer. Whilst it was intended as a compliment, it did make me question once again how I, and fellow women in this industry, are perceived by the public. 

One of the perhaps more surprising figures to consider is that the UK employs the lowest percentage of female professionals in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Manufacturing) industries in the whole of Europe, making up just 12.3%, which Business Secretary Vince Cable labelled as an “absolute disgrace”. I, myself, am currently working on a site project in Moscow where the numbers of women in the team exceeded my expectations. I hoped at first to be treated as an equal to my male counterparts, but soon realised the women are not treated as equals: they are treated better than the men. What a refreshing change! 

"My biggest concern for the industry is that with companies setting targets and deadlines for increasing the numbers of women so drastically, they are going to be forced into a ‘panic-hire’ situation, making ‘positive discrimination’ impact negatively on those companies."

In recent years, the number of females studying engineering has risen to 15%, up 1% since 2003, but this still falls short of any targets companies have set themselves for their future intakes, meaning that the problem lies early on in education and this is where more proactive encouragement is desperately needed. The UK Statistics Guide 2010 revealed that only 14% of female graduates of STEM disciplines actually go onto STEM careers, compared with 33% of male graduates.

What could be the reason for this? Some might suggest we need to dispel the myth that engineers work up to their knees in mud on a daily basis. Others will agree that more can be done to make the industry more attractive to women. I personally think that not enough is known about our industry when it comes to choosing A levels and ultimately our career paths and, like many of my friends, I found myself in engineering because there were already engineers in my family.

In September 2014, leaders of the top 20 UK STEM companies signed up to a 10 point plan, championed by WISE (Women into Science and Engineering), to encourage more women into these roles and improve retention. David Cameron, Prime Minister, commented on the 10 point plan saying: “We must pull out all the stops to ensure that women are not overlooked at work and that they are confident in applying for jobs in this vital area.”

My biggest concern for the industry is that with companies setting targets and deadlines for increasing the numbers of women so drastically, they are going to be forced into a ‘panic-hire’ situation, making ‘positive discrimination’ impact negatively on those companies. I would also hate to think at any point throughout my career that I had been, or might be, hired so that my company could tick another box on their quota. 

Alison Waterworth is a bridge engineer at AECOM based in Altrincham but currently on secondment in Russia.

She is on the organising committee for the Future of Design Conference North 2015 in Manchester on the 27th March where there will be an audience participation debate chaired by Infrastructure Intelligence’s Antony Oliver entitled “Should there be Quotas for Women in the Workplace?”

Future of Design Conference North 2015

The International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering (IABSE) promotes cooperation and understanding among those in engineering related fields, encourage awareness and responsibility of structural engineers towards the needs of society and also encourage actions necessary for progress in structural engineering.

On 27 March, the British Group will be holding their Future of Design Conference for the first time in the North of England.

The conference has an outstanding line up of keynote speakers such as AECOM’s Dr. Robin Sham, Mike Tonkin & Anna Liu (Tonkin Liu), Neil Thomas from Atelier One and Expedition’s Chris Wise. Also on the lineup are the 12 finalists of the Young Designers Competition presenting their topics before two highly charged debates in the afternoon.

The day part of the Future of Design Conference will be held at Manchester University, with the evening event hosted by the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI). One of the topics which will be debated at the conference is gender inequality, questioning whether there should be quotas for women in the workplace, so if you would like to contribute to the discussion, then please join us for the conference.

You can find more information and purchase tickets at  http://iabse.org.uk/fodnorth2015/