• Tracey Radford
  • Avni Mehta
  • Judith Sykes
Chief engineering geologist, Atkins

Why is it important for the engineering sector to ensure that it has a growing female workforce?

We're facing a national skills shortage, so we have to acknowledge that 50 per cent of the potential UK workforce are women, otherwise it's going to have severe repercussions for the engineering industry generally and the development of the UK economy specifically. Women bring a specific set of skills to the table. It’s widely acknowledged that we’re often more creative, strategic, socially conscious, and see the bigger picture. A recent Government White Paper highlighted that businesses that include more women are more successful. How can we ignore all of that going forward? I tend to be against quotas — we all want to be there on our own merit — but we certainly need to speed up the process of getting more women into the industry.

What would your advice be to young women embarking on a career in engineering?

Make sure you have a good technical grounding — but have confidence! In particular, have the confidence to seize all the opportunities presented to you. Look for a mentor because whether you are a graduate entering the industry, an apprentice, or someone who is at the top table, you always need someone who can help champion you as it can be hard to move forward by yourself. Or join or set up a support network for your female peers so you can share your experiences. But, don't think you have to blend into the crowd. Accept the fact that you are a woman in a man's industry and use it to your advantage. You might be the only woman in a big meeting, for instance, a scenario where people typically struggle to remember everyone's names — however it is certainly easier for them to remember yours!

What is the importance of role models and what initiatives are being put in place to encourage women?

Female role models are really important — but there aren't enough women in engineering and science who are publicly known. That needs to change. A couple of years ago, a national survey asked students about the influences on those considering a career in engineering. The usual list of names was mentioned — Brunel among them — but the one that came out on top was Iron Man. In a way that's great because Iron Man is all about cutting edge technology and wanting to push the envelope. So we need to be asking: what's the equivalent of Iron Man for women? Who or what is in the main stream media that is going to inspire them? 
Atkins runs work experience opportunities and careers days, so I would encourage young women to take advantage of these. We do a lot of student mentoring, too, through various organisations — so signing up for those schemes gives valuable exposure to the industry and the people in it at a young age.

Careers in engineering are still male-dominated. But is the picture changing? Are you hopeful that more women will enter engineering jobs in future?

Yes, definitely. I go into a lot of schools and increasing numbers of girls seem to be interested — or, at least, want to know more about my job. But there's still a lot we need to do to bring young women into the industry. For a start, we need to emphasise that engineering is a viable option for a career, whatever your gender, and this message needs to begin at primary school. We also have to do more than simply get students to study science subjects. We have to provide pro-active career guidance for them and make sure that young women have the right support to choose the right job. Then, once they're in the industry, they need to be encouraged to stay in the profession with mentoring, coaching and peer networks. Things are moving forward — but we have to ensure the momentum increases.

Tell us something about your career that might surprise us…

I'm heavily involved in staff development and leading training schemes and, in particular, taking graduate members of staff to look at relevant aspects of ground engineering across the country. We've been to Northumbria, Derbyshire, Dorset and even across to France to look at the construction of the Liquid Nitrogen Gas terminal at Dunkirk. This means I am constantly having to judge where I can take a double decker coach! Back in 2014, for instance, 75 of us went to Anglesey on a coach across the Menai Bridge, which was a bit of a tight squeeze. The only way we could get it through Thomas Telford's stone arches — with about three inches to spare — was to take the wing mirrors off! Mind you, if a coach-load of engineers can't work out how to do that, no-one can...

Engineering & Assurance Manager, Bam Nuttall

Why is it important for the engineering sector to ensure that it has a growing female workforce?

The engineering sector is flourishing at the moment. For example, I work in civil engineering and infrastructure where there are huge projects underway, such as the Thames Tideway Tunnel and HS2The aviation industry is also booming, and automotive is doing well. Despite the level of work available, the UK is facing a real skills challenge, which means the industry is under-resourced. The female workforce is the largest section of untapped talent for the industry, so it makes sense to develop it to supplement the workforce and to ensure that engineering isn't seen as 'a male-dominated industry' — just 'an industry with opportunity.' Plus, as more women enter the industry, female engineers will become better represented in the media. That is important to demonstrate to young women that engineering is a viable career with interesting and exciting prospects.

What would your advice be to young women embarking on a career in engineering?

Make the most of the opportunities in engineering because there are lots of them. For a start there are so many different types of engineering. For example, just within my own construction sector, you could work in a consultancy office and design bridges; or you could work in construction and build tunnels. I have friends who are lawyers and accountants working in the construction industry: they're very important too. I would advise young women to explore the many different routes into the industry. You can progress to become a chartered engineer, for instance, whether you study at university or enter through an apprenticeship. I would also point out that this is a very creative industry which involves lots of problem-solving, every day. Not to stereotype, but creativity is generally thought to be a strength that many women have, so it's a good fit. I think if you’re interested in the subject, there are no barriers I’ve experienced, so go for it!

Tell us something about your career that might surprise us

Many people might not think about this, but mine is a job that offers tangible results: that's to say the work I do has a direct impact on the built environment. So I can walk or drive past something I helped build and think: 'I did that.' That is so rewarding.
One of the most exciting jobs I worked on was the Victoria Station upgrade. We were sinking a shaft in between the Victoria Line running tunnels — and every minute there was a train with thousands of passengers going past, just 12 inches away from where we were digging. It was my role to make sure we were putting the shaft in exactly the right place. You really can't make a mistake on a job like that. It's nerve-wracking but also exciting! Engineering is a job that takes your breath away sometimes. That sounds like a cliché — but it's true.

What is the importance of role models and what initiatives are being put in place to encourage women?

Role models are very important, but I don't think they need to be high profile or super-senior. In fact, someone closer to the age of students is often more accessible and students can ask them about the job they do and why it's important. They can also show female students of similar backgrounds that people just like them can achieve success in this industry — and explain the route they took to get there.
There are plenty of industry-led initiatives designed to attract and retain women. For example, the Royal Academy of Engineering and WISE developed a 10 step plan with employers to ensure that women have the same support to progress in their careers as men. And last summer, the Academy launched an Engineering Engagement Programme, in collaboration with employers, to attract undergraduates from diverse backgrounds. There is a recognised skills shortage within the industry and employers are banding together under the leadership of the Academy to tap into a wider spectrum of future generations.

Careers in engineering are still male-dominated. But is the picture changing? Are you hopeful that more women will enter engineering jobs in future?

I am. I think the culture is changing massively. I notice increasing numbers of women are involved in engineering roles on the projects that I'm working on. Is it still a male-dominated sector? Yes. But I'm pleased to say that women are appearing in apprenticeship construction roles — so we're seeing more female bricklayers and steel fixers. That's quite new — and really welcome. There are also a lot more women within support services — such as quality management, environmental services, and health and safety — who go out on site and raise the profile of women among the rest of the team. Now, you can walk past a construction site and see women working there; that impacts on the attractiveness of engineering as a career to other women and starts to demolish the male-dominated reputation the industry has.

Co-author of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) State of the Nation: Devolution report and Director at Expedition

Why is it important for the engineering sector to ensure that it has a growing female workforce?
The sector has a massive skills shortage, so the industry needs to be more attractive to everyone to meet that deficit. We need to better explain what being an engineer actually means, the different roles within the sector and the career opportunities on offer, because 'engineering' is a term that is misunderstood by many young people.

There's another reason why women need to think of engineering as a career option - the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) believes that the infrastructure sector will become increasingly multi-disciplinary in the future, and will draw from a much wider skills pool. To achieve this it will need a much more diverse mix of people.

 

What would your advice be to young women embarking on a career in engineering?
My approach has simply been to pursue roles I have found interesting.  I've spoken to other women in the industry about this, and I have to say we all found it relatively easy to get into engineering and, once in the industry, we have faced few career barriers. So my advice would be the same for those coming into engineering: be curious both from a technical perspective and about the opportunities that exist.

Careers advice in schools could however be better. I hear stories that the industry is still presented to young people as 'male dominated', and we don't want women put off by negative stereotypes because, generally, in my experience, it's not like that. So engineering could be better 'signposted' in order to attract more young women and greater diversity generally.

 

What is the importance of role models and what initiatives are being put in place to encourage women?
I think role models are important, but we should be careful about the 'mascot-isation' of women in engineering. Women don't have to put themselves on a pedestal — they can become role models by being good at their jobs and talking about their careers. A few years ago, one of my colleagues pointed out that I've become a role model for women in engineering — although I didn't realise I was!

When it comes to initiatives — National Women in Engineering Day, for example — I’m not sure if these would’ve had such a strong influence when I was starting out. I would like more initiatives that make engineering appealing to everyone so that we don't have to have this male/female conversation in the future.

 

Careers in engineering are still male-dominated. But is the picture changing? Are you hopeful that more women will enter engineering jobs in future?
When put like this, it sounds as though I'm working in a macho environment. It doesn't feel like that at all, and actually does a disservice to all the great men I work with. So I think we should move away from focusing on 'men' and 'women' and start focusing on the opportunities available to a diverse range of people.

That said, I was quite astonished to see how little the women in engineering statistics have changed over the years since I graduated. What gives me hope is that I see young women being taught activities at school which break down gender stereotypes: playing football and rugby, for example. Breaking down barriers between the sexes is crucial if we want to create a level playing field in the workplace.

 

Tell us something about your career that might surprise us.
As an engineer, you get to work on some amazing projects. One of my career highlights was working in Brazil and looking into the use of eco-friendly timber for the Rio 2016 games. I was flown into the Amazon and spent two days there looking into the stewardship of the forest and how wood is harvested sustainably.

I've also been on a steering group producing ICE's flagship State of the Nation: Devolution report, which provides advice to government about how greater devolution will affect infrastructure provision, and how infrastructure can deliver better economic growth, environmental performance and quality of life for all citizens. The report will be published on 30 June. As an engineer you certainly get involved in interesting and varied work and can make a difference in a number of ways.