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Focus on opportunities not barriers, say female engineers

More positive messages about the success of women in engineering would encourage greater numbers of recruits, a group of female engineers told an industry meeting last week.

Speaking ahead of International Women in Engineering Day (INWED20) on June 23, they said there was too much emphasis put on the barriers to women in engineering professions and not enough celebration of their successes.

“We need to stop giving ourselves such a bad rep,” said Claire Curran, managing director of Linaker FM. “This industry is amazing and delivers some brilliant projects – let’s focus on the exciting stuff.”

Ms Curran, who is a board member of the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA), added that women should also have more confidence in their ability to lead engineering projects and organisations. “We need more female role models, but it is hard to get women to put themselves forward because they don’t want to be seen as pushy or aggressive. Women need to feel able to be themselves and not try to fit in with the ‘blokey’ culture,” she told a webinar hosted by BESA.

Elizabeth Donnelly, chief executive of the Women in Engineering Society (WES), said the pivotal role played by women in many engineering projects should be celebrated including their work in healthcare projects where they are helping to save lives.

“Women like to work where they can make a difference so we need to promote the amazing opportunities in engineering to ‘shape the world’ i.e. through sustainability; the climate emergency and addressing social inequalities,” she added.

Just over 12% of all UK engineers are women, according to Ms Donnelly. However, that figure falls to 9.7% (around 1 in 10) of those employed in ‘traditional’ engineering. 18.5% of engineers working for non-engineering organisations are women (around 1 in 5) – hence the overall figure of 12%. 'The figures are still far too low, but at least the non-engineering sectors seem to be moving in the right direction,” she said.

Reanna Taylor, senior project engineer at NG Bailey, said women’s greater “emotional intelligence” also made them well suited to taking leadership roles. “We are also good at finding new solutions to old problems and bringing people together.

“We do tend to focus on the ‘barriers’ created by gender when, in fact, we should be concentrating on the difficulties all engineers have in common – such as the technical challenges we face,” added Ms Taylor, who was the first chair of the BESA Future Leaders’ group.

Ms Donnelly agreed pointing out that men “tend to go straight at problems and try to solve them by brute force” whereas a woman will try to work around an issue and come at it from a new angle.

Last year’s winner of the BESA Apprentice of the Year Award Melissa Lee told the webinar that it was important to make sure young women felt supported when they came into the industry.

“Female apprentices often feel intimidated because they think they are on their own, but they are not and we need to make them feel supported on their journey through the industry,” said Melissa, who is an apprentice welder/fabricator at Premium Fabrications. “There are lots of opportunities, but you have to be keen to learn everything you can about the industry and be ambitious.”

Ms Taylor also urged contractors to be more flexible about working conditions to make themselves more appealing to women: “My counterparts on the design side of the industry seem to have a better work/life balance – we can learn from that,” she said.

Ms Donnelly added that employers could also give more thought to how their recruitment material would be regarded by a woman. “Men will tend to apply for a job even if they are unsure they can do it; while a woman will only apply if she thinks she fits ALL of the criteria,” she explained.

The webinar also heard that the industry was in danger of missing out on crucial funding for new recruits. More than a third of the money raised by the Apprenticeship Levy has not been spent and could be swallowed up by the Treasury in December.

“Employers could use that money to recruit more apprentices or avoid making some redundant,” said BESA chief executive David Frise. “Young people have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 crisis and this is one area where we could redress the balance a little.”

For more information about INWED20 go to: www.wes.org.uk

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