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3 ‘feminine’ traits that make you a better civil engineer 

24 March 2021

Ayo Sokale discusses how being compassionate, collaborative, and nurturing can add value to civil engineering, in our latest Women Like Us blog. 

3 ‘feminine’ traits that make you a better civil engineer 
Ayo Sokale on a site visit. Image credit: Ayo Sokale

I was recently on a panel for International Women’s Day discussing feminine traits in STEM and having reflected on it further, I wanted to share my thoughts.

What are feminine traits, and how are they valuable to engineering?

Feminine traits are typically defined as: compassion, cooperation and collaboration, and nurturing.

(I will caveat this; archetypes of gender are based on society’s own myths and observations over time and their validity and origins are often debated. Both feminine and masculine traits can obviously be embodied by both sexes. For this blog, I’ll be discussing feminine traits and the value they bring to civil engineering.)

Compassion is one trait commonly considered as ‘feminine’. To be compassionate is to recognise the suffering of others and act to help. This is often the heart of engineering, and is exemplified in ICE’s Royal Charter, which features Thomas Tredgold’s definition of civil engineering: “Engineering is the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man.”

From my personal hero, Joseph Bazalgette and his work saving London from cholera to modern-day engineers working on projects like the Boston Barrier protecting people and communities from flooding, the work of a civil engineer is far-reaching. It even includes NGOs, such as ‘Bridges to Prosperity’, which connects communities and improves lives.

Compassion is the driving force for all our works as civil engineers. And looking at the current challenges, such as the UN SDG goals to achieve net-zero carbon and environmental justice, there’s never been a greater need for people driven by compassion to solve problems.

On a personal note, it’s why I chose to go into civil engineering - to be in a position to solve problems and add value to the world. Now, I’m a chartered civil engineer working at the Environment Agency where everything we do plays a positive role in the world, from protecting people from flooding, ensuring water for navigation, improving biodiversity to protecting wildlife.

With the need for more civil engineers to join the profession, we need to appeal to the feminine trait of compassion and sell our great profession in terms of the outcomes we deliver and the benefit we add.

The technical skills are valuable, but we always need a ‘why’. Compassion gives us the ‘why’. and the ‘how’, to increase the uptake of this civic-minded profession.

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Why civil engineers need to co-operate and collaborate

Considering these challenges, industry is now focused on the need to work collaboratively throughout the whole life of projects to deliver better outcome. This requires these ‘feminine’ traits in abundance: working together towards a common goal (cooperation), working with each other (collaboration).

This is exactly what Project 13, an initiative to improve the delivery of infrastructure, is about.

This need for the ‘feminine’ traits of co-operation and collaboration is further highlighted in Dame Judith Hackitt’s report following the Grenfell Tower Fire, where she said “there needs to be a golden thread for all complex and high-risk building projects so that the original design intent is preserved and recorded, and…any changes go through a formal review process involving people who are competent and who understand the key features of the design".

When effective co-operation and collaboration exist, this is achievable. All parties, current and future, understand the asset. Building Information Modelling (BIM) makes this all the more viable when parties are sharing common data environments and the health and safety files (HSF) are kept, informing long-term asset management.

What value does nurturing or caring bring to civil engineering?

Philosopher Nel Noddings identified the ‘ethics of care’ - which involves maintaining the world of, and meeting the needs of, ourselves and others - as a feminine ethic. Although it originally referred to caring on a personal level, its application has become wider, to include caring for animals, the environment and even public policy.

There’s a huge need for this caring, or nurturing, perspective in our industry.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) data shows that more than one construction worker takes their own life every day. And in 2017-18, over 400,000 days of work were lost in due to poor mental health in construction, according to data from the Health & Safety Executive.This further highlights the gravity of mental health issues within the construction industry.

Having an increase in nurturing traits can only be a good thing, as it means more focus on the interpersonal relationship with each other, increasing the chance of noticing the signs of mental health issues, and creating spaces where people can feel safe to share their challenges.

Could having more feminine traits in the room save lives in a typically male-dominated industry?

Do feminine traits increase innovation?

A study with the Technical University of Munich surveyed 171 companies in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and asked them two things: how innovative they are and how diverse they are.

The results showed gender diversity had an impact on innovation - where there were more than 20% women in leadership, there was a sharp increase in innovation revenue. Could this be extrapolated to mean that more women meant an increase in feminine traits?

In summary, I think typically ‘feminine’ traits have a huge part to play in civil engineering. However, to fully benefit from them, we need to equally value feminine and masculine traits, so that those displaying them can show up authentically.

After all, we need both feminine and masculine traits to complement one another, and as a result, I believe that our industry will derive twice the value.

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  • Ayo Sokale, Project Manager, Environment Agency