Last week, we had a great conversation with four of our female engineers about their careers. Today is International Women in Engineering Day, so we’ve spoken with them again to hear their thoughts about being a woman in the construction industry and to understand what needs be done to encourage more women to join them.
As women working in engineering, do you have any role models that you look up to – both inside and outside your field of work?
Nikki Smith, Regional Engineering Manager – South East: I don’t really have a role model and I wasn’t aware of any female engineers when I was studying, but I really hope the younger generation find role models to look up to.
Anna Preston, Development Team Leader: Yes, it is difficult to think of a female engineering role model. There are plenty of male engineers to look up to, but not many females. However, I did go to an event recently where Barbara Res was presenting; she was a civil engineer in the 80s and was responsible for Trump Towers. Barbara was very honest about being a woman in the construction industry and I found it inspiring.
Chloe Jones, Engineering Technician: I find [the architect] Zaha Hadid very inspirational, as she was known for pushing the boundaries and not really conforming to what was classed as ‘normal’. She really pushed herself to the top of her game.
Albina Jevsejeva, Senior Engineer: The person who inspired me to be more inquisitive and passionate was my physics teacher. When she taught, she explained everything until everyone in the class understood what she was talking about. She was very happy, knowledgeable and would not give up until she found the answer!
Why do you think it is important that more women take up engineering?
Nikki: The women I know in the industry are really good at it and are exceptional at taking a project from start to finish. There are still not enough women in this industry though, so it would be good to get to a stage where it is normal.
Albina: I agree, we really do need to encourage more females into the industry, as good engineers is a scarce resource at the moment – there is a big skills shortage. We have a lot of people in this country who we can train to fill these gaps in order to grow the economy, but society as a whole need to encourage the next generation to consider roles in construction and engineering.
Anna: I think Nikki and Albina are right. However, I don’t necessarily think it’s more important that women go into engineering, but more so that they are provided with the right support, encouragement and opportunities. Young people at school aren’t getting the help and guidance they need, which is why we are experiencing this skills gap.
Chloe: There are students currently at school that have a passion for maths and science, but they might not see a career in the construction industry as an option for them. And I think this is mainly because the industry might not seem flexible or accessible enough for anyone with – or wanting – children or families. Although the industry has come on leaps and bounds, I still think there is a lot of work to do to make it more appealing to women.
Do you think there is more that schools could do to get girls engaged in science and maths from a young age?
Nikki: Yes, but I do think it all depends on how subjects are taught. For example, at my daughter’s school, they seem to engage them quite well in maths and science. However, like our STEM programme, young people need to be shown how maths and science can be used in the real world, as they don’t really understand why or how they’d use certain calculations outside of school. My children always show me their maths problems and say things like “when would I ever use this equation?”, but I then show them how I use it in my job.
Anna: I think it’s like what Nikki said, it’s very much about making it relatable to everyday life. As a STEM ambassador on the Mabey Hire programme, when I talk to children in schools they just want to get to the answer, and they don’t see the relevance of why they are doing it. However, if we could demonstrate it as problem solving exercise and explain why they are doing it, it makes it more interesting for them.
Chloe: What you said Anna, about children just wanting to get to the answer, is definitely down to the style of teaching in schools: you just need to get to the answer, and if the answer is correct but how you got there isn’t quite right, then don’t worry, you’ll still get the mark! So, I think it’s a case of changing the way we teach children. Maths isn’t just one plus one, it’s showing them how they can use these calculations later on in life – making it relatable – and that they’re not just reciting timetables for the sake of it, it does apply to something. You need to give children the opportunity to see how they can use maths and science, by incorporating more things like the STEM programme within schools to give them a passion at a much younger age.
What challenges do women face in engineering?
Nikki: There aren’t as many challenges these days, but when I first started, people would call and think I was a receptionist and ask to speak to an engineer. In fact, someone did actually ask to speak to a male engineer once. That was 25 years ago though and things have changed a lot. You don’t come across anything like that now. However, when dealing with enquiries I do get the odd customer who is surprised that I know what I am talking about. As a woman you have got to prove yourself more and so you need to be fully prepared to answer any questions.
Anna: Early in my career, I worked as a site engineer and not only did I not get any PPE gear that fitted correctly, but there were no female welfare facilities – I had to use the men’s toilets every day! As Nikki said though, things have come a long way since then, but there is still some way to go.
Albina: I’ve experienced some interesting situations during my career, but as Nikki and Anna said, the industry is improving for women and I haven’t experienced any sexism in a long time. That said, I have been to sites that don’t really cater for women and I’ve worked alongside companies that have ‘banter’ about women being on site.
Chloe: I think it’s just basically overcoming the prejudiced thoughts of females ‘knowing less’. But then again, that’s my favourite part of the job. I really enjoy surprising people with my knowledge and proving those who have doubted me wrong. Although, it can be frustrating having to prove yourself sometimes.
How do you think the industry can make engineering more attractive to women?
Anna: We need to present the opportunities available and women in the industry also need to be shown as positive role models, which will hopefully attract new talent. When I visit schools as a STEM ambassador, the students don’t know anything about engineering. However, at the end of each session, the children start thinking that they could actually do something like this. In fact, our results showed that when we first entered a school the children were not interested in engineering – especially the girls – but at the end of our sessions, a survey reported that 95% of the students wanted to go into an engineering role. So, it shows that we just need to place more positive role models within schools.
Chloe: We need to make it a more appealing and inclusive industry to work in. We need the industry to pull together and show that it is actually achievable for women to have careers in engineering.
Albina: I think one thing we need to highlight is that family and parents also need to engage more with their children to show them what they could be and what they could achieve. I wouldn’t have chosen engineering if it wasn’t for my family!
Nikki: That’s a good idea actually. I was brought up in way that showed me I could do anything that I wanted and unfortunately, I don’t think some people have that opportunity.
What advice do you have for young girls and other women that are interested in becoming an engineer?
Albina: Engineering is not for everybody, but if it excites you then don’t give up! No one’s opinions should matter, just enjoy what you enjoy doing.
Nikki: If you’re interested, make sure no one puts you off! Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not a woman’s job. There are plenty of women in the industry that would be more than happy to help and guide the younger generations onto this career path.
Anna: Yes, I agree, you just need to go for it…but be prepared to stick up for yourself! The construction industry is very exciting at the moment; it’s a great place to be.
For more information about International Women in Engineering Day visit www.inwed.org.uk or if you’re interested in an engineering career with Mabey Hire, please visit our Join Us section we’d love to hear from you!
Missed the first blog in the series? Read it here.