To attract female talent, civil engineers need to become more than the unsung heroes of the built environment

Carol Geddes Image 1

There’s been a huge volume of promotional activity to attract more female engineers into the industry over the last few years, and plenty more written about the challenge.

Working for a Swedish-owned business with a female global CEO, I’ve seen first-hand that things are changing. When I graduated in 2001, I was one of just a few female engineers in the office, these days there are many more of us.

Yet, across the board the split is still far from even. The industry and government are investing in campaigns and school and university outreach programmes to inspire young girls to consider careers in engineering. The question is what more can be done?

Communicating that sense of achievement is key

Ultimately, to attract female talent, engineering must also tackle a more fundamental perception challenge.

Ask the average person to name a well-known architect and I suspect they’ll be able to provide you with at least one of a handful of household names. Ask them the same of a civil engineer and I highly doubt you’ll get a response.

The fact is, civil engineers have long been the unsung heroes of the built environment. There is a lack of knowledge in general about the diversity of experience an engineering career offers. It’s a status that belies how rewarding it is to work on a piece of physical infrastructure that will stand the test of time and underpin or contribute to our communities – be it a bridge, a transport network or piece of energy infrastructure.

At Sweco UK we have female engineers contributing to projects as diverse as the Queensferry Crossing and Bloomberg’s new European HQ in London. If we can communicate that variety, we have a much better chance of capturing the inspiration of potential young engineers.

There’s an unhelpful stereotype that engineering is solely a maths and science-based vocation. Of course, getting the appropriate grades in STEM subjects is essential but in focusing solely on that aspect of the job we risk losing hearts and minds.

Engineering requires an aptitude for problem solving and coming up with innovative, creative and increasingly sustainable solutions. One of my most recent projects, is a case in point. On the Queensferry Crossing my role included coordinating teams of multi-disciplinary engineers across three design JV partners in three countries. We delivered 300 design packages in a short space of time. It was challenging and exhilarating. And we now have a major feat of engineering on the landscape that we can point to and say: “I built that”.

Communicating that sense of achievement is key.

There are also some other potent messages for younger generations we must get across.

It’s commonly accepted that today’s young people are more alive to environmental issues than preceding generations. Sustainability is fundamental to the engineering sector and that has to be part of our ‘sell’ to future generations. It’s an aspect of design that we leverage heavily in our own graduate recruitment strategy at Sweco – for which our heritage in the renewables-rich Nordics is helpful.

Employability is another. Concern over the employment prospects of UK school leavers is rarely out of the press. Meanwhile, the engineering industry is crying out for talent to address a skills shortage that will only become tougher post-Brexit – the job prospects for young engineers are promising. Ensuring this message is baked into school age careers advice is key.

When I left school at 16 I had a very stereotypical view of the industry – perhaps due to a male-dominated teaching environment for STEM subjects. Job prospects and development opportunities for women in engineering were simply not openly discussed.

With little information available, my decision to go into engineering was based on my own research. I found my way in but I fear others did not.

We must identify and shine a light on strong female role models in the industry and celebrate their successes. Perhaps then we’ll have a few more household name civil engineers, with inspiring women among their number.