A coordinated approach to put women on the fast track

Investment in new railways over the next decade will put UK engineering firms and their engineers at the forefront of the global rail industry – just when $1trillion is expected to be invested around the world building new lines to connect growing cities.

Fusion, one of the bidding consortia for UK high speed rail contracts (a joint venture between Morgan Sindall, BAM and Ferrovial Agroman), hopes to see the UK pick up the baton from Spain on rail innovation and technology. With a high speed rail network of some 3,100km, Spain is acknowledged as the European leader in the rapid construction of high speed rail.

That the UK will benefit from knowledge transfer is self-evident, something which Fusion is suitably positioned for via one of its parent companies, Ferrovial Agroman. But it is not the only bonus that can be gained from Spanish activity. Most of the consortia currently bidding for rail contracts in the UK have European experience at their heart, and with that will come an added boost for addressing one of the big problems within industry – the lack of women engineers.

There is first the simple issue of numbers. Only 9% of UK engineering professionals are women – the lowest in Europe – compared with 18% in Spain, 26% in Sweden and 20% in Italy.

In Europe many of the women are in leadership roles, something which the UK is now recognising and positioning itself to address. Rail clients have a very high expectation of increased diversity and expect to see an increasing number of women working on their projects.

In my experience, there is a difference between the UK and European understanding of the role of an engineer. In the UK, public perception of an "engineer" extends to a whole variety of roles, across industries. This has led to mixed interpretations of what it means to be an engineer.

Though progress is being made, collectively we must continue to establish the exciting career opportunities our industry offers. Together, we should be moving closer towards the European understanding of engineering as the design and creation of life-enhancing infrastructure, a career that I am sure our future female entrants will be keen to share and talk about.

Having a better gender balance on rail schemes that communicates the positive social contribution of infrastructure along with the technical complexities means projects can be used to open the eyes of everyone, including parents and teachers, to the career potential for women.

I feel incredibly privileged to have had the career I have had so far, with exposure to role models, encouragement and support along the way. I feel it is my duty, and one that I wholeheartedly welcome, to get out to schools, to be an active STEM ambassador and also to work with the long-term unemployed. We are responsible for tackling the continuing issues of perception of engineering and opening up the world to those members of society who haven't previously considered engineering as a viable option for them.

There is a credible opportunity here for projects to be seen to be leading the way, offering clearer career paths and countering the imbalance of women to men, particularly in positions of leadership.

According to research from the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation, 90% of management roles and board positions in transport are held by men. These statistics demonstrate the need for change. The current practices for attraction and retention are in urgent need of revival.

Clients are putting down markers as to the seriousness with which they take improving gender balance, by placing accountability for equality, diversity and inclusion at board level.

There is potential, then, for initiatives to deal with systemic bias in promotions via leadership training for women and return to work programmes, with more visible flexible working policies and progression for part-time workers. Equally, enhanced networking opportunities across industry groups, and focused award ceremonies celebrating the achievements of women and their mentors, such as WICE (Women in Construction and Engineering) are vital forums for us all.

With clients taking the lead, it is inevitable that they will expect suppliers working on their projects to be making the same efforts.

A co-ordinated approach across projects from the top of the supply chain all the way down the various tiers would have a powerful impact on how women engineers are perceived by industry, public and each other, while also making a real improvement in recruitment and retention figures.

The huge levels of planned investment mean results could be achieved at high speed – and so they need to be.

Reference: Transport Times Skills Supplement - available 9 Sep

Fusion will be speaking further about this at our conference HS2: Phase One and Beyond on 12 October. Click here to book your place. 

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