What's it Like to be a Woman in Construction?

November 24, 2017

As a student, Katie upset the ethos of her girls’ school to pursue a career in civil engineering.   Now chartered, Katie has been an integral part of major UK infrastructure project delivery and leading change within the industry.  Katie is an ambassador for the promotion of engineering amongst young people, particularly women.  

 

This is the third in our series of posts by women working in the construction industry about the issues they face. Please see the introductory post for why we are running it.

 

Image source Department of Transport licensed under Creative Commons

 

Equality, diversity and inclusion are very much at the top of the engineering agenda.  Wherever you look, whatever the media source, common words and phrases such as ‘women in engineering’, ‘quotas’, ‘gender diversity’, ‘female empowerment’ are everywhere….and yet this issue that was prominent when I began my career still persists now?  It begs the question, is this a corporate diversity box ticking exercise or are we really addressing the issue at the source?

 

I embarked on my engineering career some 15 years ago at the age of 16.  As a student at an all-female secondary school that was focused on ‘regurgitating’ doctors and lawyers, engineering was outside the majority of the faculty knowledge and understanding.

 

However, thank goodness for my design and technology teacher who applied for my AS level class (yes, all 3 of us) to attended a conference called ‘Change the Face of Construction’ aimed at young women entering the industry.  Without knowing at all what to expect, it was here where I met senior members of the Company I now work for, details were swapped and I secured my first stint of work experience on a construction site.   

 

My memory of that week is somewhat sketchy, however I recall being fascinated and in awe of what was being built, how it was being built and the vast resource required to achieve it.  I was conscious that there were no females donning hi-vis and hard hats but it didn’t seem to be an issue for me – from what I recall I didn’t feel like I was treated any different.  More work experience followed, then sponsorship, full time employment and now I’m a chartered engineer. 

 

Not only do I feel it a responsibility to young people but also due to the way in which I got into the industry, I am very passionate about raising awareness amongst school pupils and teachers about the career options available within the industry.

 

As such, I have had the opportunity to present to many young people, more often young women on opportunities in engineering and construction.  I can of course only speak of my own experience but what I have learnt is to be as open and honest about my experiences as I can and (although I have been asked to) I refrain from over glamorising a career that (however rewarding) is hard work and not without its challenges.  Well…it’s no fun if it doesn’t throw some challenges your way right?

 

After several years of STEM ambassador duties, there are questions that are often asked by female students…. the most common being ‘How much do you get paid?’ (of course, this is the most important thing you need to know as a teenager) and the other; ‘How do you deal with working with so many men?’.   My answer to the first is pretty much straight forward; “It really does depend on who you work for however, did you know that, last time I checked, engineering graduates are on the second highest paid graduate salary next to medicine?”  I always get an intrigued eyebrow raise after that one.

 

The second answer is slightly more complex as it has been challenging and frustrating at times.  One example that is most prominent in my memory includes being called out to site to rectify an issue where I took the new male graduate out with me as a learning experience for him.  Upon approaching the sub-contract supervisor on site (I had sadly already anticipated what was going to happen) they posed their issue directly to the new graduate and seemingly didn’t even acknowledge my presence.

 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I would love to assume that my youthful looks played a part in the supervisor believing the graduate was more experienced than me however this unfortunately wasn’t the case.  As the daunted graduated turned to me for help the supervisor immediately reacted “Oh, sorry Love, do you want me to run through that for you again?”  Although commonly referred to as ‘the little fiery one’, I took a deep breath and calmly responded with “no, I’m ok thank you” and then turned to the graduate to ask him what he thought the best way forward was.

 

After a lengthy discussion and me providing guidance for them to come to a decision, the supervisor finally looked at me with a little less doubt in his eyes - a look that of course would still take some time for me to fully extinguish.  That look of doubt is the most frustrating of all for me, the look of “Does she know what she’s doing?”, the look that I believe takes much longer to dispel as a female than it would a male, the look that sadly changes to surprise once the realisation that you do know what you are talking about sets in, the look that still very much exists in the industry today.  Other examples include the occasional remark about it being ‘my job to brush up’ or ‘my job to do the washing up’ the general gender stereotyping remarks that although meant as the ‘craic’ would never be posed to a male colleague.

 

However, irrespective of these sporadic situations from a minority of people, I have had a plethora of opportunities throughout my career to date and have great fun along the way.  These opportunities have been in my role as a civil engineer taking me across the UK working on fascinating projects, business development building a wider understanding of the industry with exposure to different environments, opening the eyes of young people to opportunities available to them as a STEM ambassador and hopefully imparting some wisdom as a mentor to young engineers working their way through the early years of their careers.

 

Along this journey I have met a lot of fantastic people, both male and female who are supportive and will do what they can to help guide my career in my chosen direction and this, of course, is the focus of my response to the question about working with men.  I explain that, yes there are times when you will be challenged by the people you meet and from my experience have to work a little bit harder at times to achieve the same acknowledgement, however the sense of accomplishment and pride I feel as a civil engineer as well as the vast opportunities available to me far out way the few frustrations I have faced.

 

So, what is the source of the issue? Why are we continuing to report such low numbers of female engineers?  As far as I am concerned, more young women would be more enthusiastic at a career in civil engineering (or any engineering discipline for that matter, I am somewhat biased) if they had teachers that had a clear understanding of what is involved.  Are we really explaining what engineering and construction is about, what it involves or how it really makes us feel? Or do we continue to assume a hi-tech time lapse bridge build video with dramatic background music is enough to engender interest?  I know which one would have more influence on me.

 

I must admit, I can’t say that things haven’t moved on since I started as a Civil Engineer, they have.  Although far too slowly, the numbers of women in engineering are increasing.  There have been 2 projects I have worked on now with near 40% female engineers – a far cry from the usual scenario of being the only female out on site.  It should be noted that both projects had a woman at the helm.  Coincidence?

 

As an industry though, I’m not sure we are doing ourselves many favours in speeding up the growth of women entering engineering.  I recently attended a highly promoted evening event for a large transportation scheme where there was the opportunity for the attendees to pose questions to a panel of experts. The panellists were asked the question of how they propose to improve diversity within the scheme to which the all-male panel gave their responses?!  I later asked where the female members of the panel were to which the response was, “Oh well we did have one but they’re ill”.  I think my jaw almost hitting the ground was enough of a response for them to scuttle away from me very quickly.

 

A common debate I often find myself in with my peers are Women in Engineering Awards.  I appreciate and fully rally behind any platform that showcases the excellent female talent to women debating a career in engineering.  However, now that I have chosen a career in engineering I often ask the question of if, as an industry that is striving for equality, is it not a bit hypercritical to have awards solely devoted to women?  I know I would much rather compete against 100% of my peers than 9%.  If MTV can eliminate gender specific awards then, why can’t we?

 

The key to all of this is that eventually, and I hope sooner rather than later, the question asked about how I deal with working with men will no longer need to be asked - and the only concern for women interested in engineering will be things such as wondering what countries are the best to work in or what is the highest accolade they can work towards.

 

If you are a woman working in construction and would like to share your experiences on our blog then please get in touch.

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