Emma Antrobus, North West Director, Institution of Civil Engineers
Emma Antrobus, North West Director, Institution of Civil Engineers

This slow progress is not enough – we need more women in engineering

Emma Antrobus is ICE North West Director and a trustee of two multi-academy trusts in Manchester. This International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) 23 June, she shines a spotlight on how to inspire girls to become civil engineers and why a focus on retention is also key.

As we help to promote INWED 2020, I obviously won’t be physically joining my industry peers and speaking at the in-person event we had planned.

For our team at ICE North West, the current lockdown situation has forced us to re-evaluate the way we work and re-assess how we can deliver our engagement in other ways. It has also given us a moment to sit back and reflect on the progress, albeit slow progress, being made to see a more gender diverse civil engineering workforce.

The current picture

We are using social media more than ever before to inspire and engage and there is currently a lot of traffic about #INWED20, spotlighting some of our female members. And it seems to be working – on average 12% of engineers are female. This is true for ICE members globally and members in our region. For women under 30 in the North West, it is almost 20%. Sadly, as we dig deeper, only 4% of our Fellows, our highest grade of membership, are female – against a membership average of 6%.

Inspiring girls

As North West Director of ICE, a trustee of two multi-academy trusts, a wife, mother, friend and mentor, I am passionate about improving life chances for all people but it is clear that, for many reasons, women and girls are significantly under-represented in many industries. Engineering is one of those.

Both personally and professionally I want to see change, including more collaboration between influential organisations in our space such as STEM Learning, DEC in schools, Science Museums and Discovery Centres. ICE has a policy that all our volunteers have to be STEM registered so they have training and a DBS check. We provide various resources to inspire young people such as kits to build tetrahedrons, bridges, and how to survive a zombie apocalypse!

We also need to clearly demonstrate the breadth of roles within engineering, which don’t all involve putting on hi-vis and a helmet to go on site with a predominantly male workforce – often a barrier to girls. Anything that is built requires a civil engineer, from skyscrapers to sewers, roads and railways, bridges and tunnels – but it has to be designed, costed and procured before it gets anywhere near being built.

Investing in women

Figures show that there is an issue with women engineers leaving the industry. When they do stay, they are not achieving the seniority that prompts them to apply to become an ICE Fellow. Often their perception of the required seniority is tied into Imposter Syndrome. I recently spoke to an engineer with more than 25 years’ experience who had been leading teams for over 20 years and is currently managing more than 10 projects. She wasn’t sure if she was at the right level for fellowship.

Some of the industry leavers cite working conditions as their reason for leaving. Often it is the conflict of caring responsibilities with deadline driven project work. Sometimes it is feeling like a career break means they have been left behind with advances in technology and engineering processes. Many of the large engineering firms offer returner programmes but there are probably not enough places, and there is uncertainty over jobs at the end of the period.

There is a sense that asking for part-time as a returner is not conducive to promotion. Attitudes are changing but not at a consistent rate across the industry. SMEs in particular are taking longer due to immediate operational needs taking precedence.

We all know the benefits of a diverse workforce. We now we need to see more proactivity and action. We need more role models and active mentoring, for junior, middle and senior women. And we need benchmarking against other industries and countries to support better decision-making in the board room.

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