Happy ‘National Women in Engineering Day’ (! For those of us fearing the outcome of today’s EU Referendum, here is a real thing to celebrate.

There have never been as many women engineers in the UK as there are today. On an anecdotal level, we see many strong women candidates when we are recruiting new graduates and our office now feels closer to being gender-balanced than any other workplace I have experienced. Also, and very importantly, in my thirteen year career I have come up against very little explicit gender discrimination. In the main, I am treated as an equal at work.

But in a country where men and women - at least on paper - have equal rights, and where girls perform better at maths and sciences at both GCSE and A-Level compared with boys, why are just 6% of registered/chartered engineers female? Should we be satisfied that 87% of the people who make up the leadership teams of the top 10 engineering companies in Building 2015 are men? I don’t think I need to dignify these questions with an answer. (In fact, I feel angry as I write).

The majority of construction industry projects are still run and delivered mostly by men. On two of the largest projects in which I have been involved over the last five years, I have repeatedly attended design team meetings of twelve or more people in which I am the only woman in the room. Whilst it is crude to apply gender stereotypes and indisputably true that some women can be arrogant and some men can multi-task, I would challenge anyone to suggest that construction industry projects wouldn’t go differently if they were delivered primarily by women, or indeed by an equal distribution of the sexes. I think that those differences would be largely positive, and that the construction industry would be better off as a result. I believe that we, as Engineers, have a duty to work towards a more equal representation of genders, to at least give that hypothesis a chance.

So how can we reduce the gender disparity in our field? I would argue that flexible working offers a vital way forward. We lose women from the industry when they have children. In some cases, women are discouraged even from starting out in engineering because of the impact they imagine having children will subsequently have on their career. If we can offer men and women the opportunity to work flexible hours; part time; or partly from home, we open up doors for parents to find ways to keep working. The more we encourage men to take up these options as well as women, and across engineers of all ages, the more we create a culture whereby flexible working is viewed as the norm, rather than a backwater to which women’s careers can become consigned at the moment of childbirth. At Engenuiti, we have a senior engineering team of twelve, seven of whom, including all three directors, apply an aspect of flexible working on a regular basis. Flexible working is becoming embedded in the practice’s culture, and in my view, this has removed one of the most critical obstacles to gender equality in the workplace altogether.

The other aspect of flexible working that is key is the equalising of parental leave rights. The two legal parents of a child can now divide parental leave between them, more or less as they wish. But whilst this is true in law, workplace culture has a way to go to catch up. I believe it is our responsibility as directors and business leaders within engineering firms to actively encourage male employees to take up a greater share of parental leave, thus ‘levelling out’ the impact of taking time out of work post-having children. This is something that we are just beginning to work to promote at Engenuiti, and we hope that others will follow.

As engineering practices we also need to get much better at having the confidence to promote women to senior positions more quickly. There is a massive disparity between the genders at a leadership level and in this context, it is no surprise that young female engineers struggle for role models. I’m not calling for positive discrimination because I don’t believe it should be necessary. What I am proposing is that firms be ‘smarter’ about their recruitment and promotion strategies. In my experience of interviewing for prospective posts, it is much easier to see potential in people ‘like me’. In engineering (as in many other professions), people ‘like me’ are 85% likely to be white men. So either we need to find the emotional intelligence to be able to read the potential in people whom we can’t necessarily instantly relate to, or we need to reform our recruitment strategies to include other (more objective) forms of assessment. Engenuiti’s founding directors were enlightened enough in their approach to promotion to promote me whilst I was on maternity leave. Now let’s see what other firms can do.

Structural engineering is based around a complete symbiosis of art and science; of left and right brained thinking. If structural engineering is a not a profession that can benefit from a strong representation across genders, then I don’t know what is. Gender equality in the workplace is a complex problem. Structural engineers are also problem solvers. In that context, if we cannot be industry leaders in bringing about a greater degree of gender equality then we have failed as a profession. Let’s make this ‘National Women in Engineering Day’ be the celebration of the start of something fantastic.

Rachel Sandbrook, Associate Director

23 Jun 2016
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