It’s 2019 and we’re learning to overturn gender stereotypes. This month the Women’s World Cup is scoring headlines for its record viewing figures and the long-awaited return of hit female-led series Killing Eve shows the appetite for women in traditionally male spheres. The calls are getting louder to increase female representation in jobs and sectors historically dominated by men – and to pay them equally, while they’re at it.
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects have for a while now been the focus of public and government attention as an area to significantly increase female involvement. The statistics underline this need, with women making up less than a quarter of the workforce in core STEM subjects in the UK. And moves are being made to remove the visible and invisible barriers to women in these areas: for example, just this month the BBC launched their ‘Step into Tech’ scheme to encourage women into software engineering. However, focus and funding often tends to cluster around very specific areas within these industries and the seemingly less glamorous STEM avenues can take a back seat.
Civil engineering is one of the sectors which can slip under our collective radar when it comes to female representation. But it’s important we encourage new talent in this industry – after all, the construction industry as a whole contributes £113 billion to the UK economy each year (6% of total GDP), and we need to be enabling bright minds and fresh perspectives to take up such roles if we want this figure to grow and respond to the opportunities and challenges of the coming years. In fact, it’s especially important to focus on opening up paths for women in construction as it’s a sector which has to work to overcome its historical gender bias (women currently account for only 14% of the construction workforce, according to a government report published in March).
My exposure to the industry came from my family which meant I grew up with an understanding of the sector and the different possibilities within it. My grandfather was a construction site manager, as is my father, so you couldn’t escape talking shop at the dinner table! We used to look at old pictures my grandfather took during his working life and this sparked my fascination and desire to also be involved in this sphere. My family connection meant I was able to see behind the scenes of the industry and felt empowered to become a part of it, which isn’t necessarily the case for other women.
At school I found I was more inclined to subjects like Maths and Science, and things started to fall into place. The fact I also had a passion for sketching and drawing made a career in engineering make perfect sense and so I followed school with a degree in engineering, before joining Lyons O’Neill. That’s actually one of the great myths about civil and structural engineering, that it’s all about numbers and calculations. Though, of course, it’s a highly technical discipline and attention to detail is the difference between a structure collapsing or being able to stand, there are also many creative elements. Whether it’s sketching out plans or figuring out an alternative design solution, I love that my role uses both the left and right side of my brain. In my job at Lyons O’Neill I work on projects of every size and shape, across a range of sectors, which helps me keep that creativity and a fresh perspective. I enjoy being involved in a project from inception to completion – it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to physically see and touch the results of your efforts and see the impact a new building can have on people and communities.
Although I’ve always been encouraged by my family there have been occasions where I have encountered others’ myths and preconceptions around engineering. There have been moments whilst training and visiting projects where I feel aware of being spoken to a little differently than my male colleagues, though this disappears when the quality of my work becomes evident. Normalising the presence of women in engineering and construction is what’s needed to dispel these myths around female capabilities and demonstrate that women are perfectly built for such careers.
This normalisation comes through highlighting the work of all the women already in the sector to counter the misconceptions about what an engineer looks like and encourage others weighing up career options. Of course, government investment in training schemes and the work of female-led organisations are essential, but it’s also by transforming society’s attitude towards gender and jobs that we will push forward change. I’m a big believer in sharing stories and experiences as a way to encourage others, pass on lessons and show other women what’s possible. Although this process, as in every traditionally male sector, takes time (people I meet still sometimes look visibly astonished when I tell them my job!) it’s the only way we’ll see real, long-lasting change.
International Days can sometimes feel a little like a tick box to be checked off as we move through the year, but they can be a great chance to exchange insights and renew our commitment to progress. This International Women in Engineering Day, what’s your story… and how can you share it?
By Sara Maffei, Civil Engineer at Lyons O’Neill