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How can we attract and retain more women into civil engineering?

22 June 2020

Two ICE President’s Future Leaders – Holly Smith and Louise Hetherington - discuss this year’s International Women In Engineering Day (#INWED20) focusing on the need for diversity within the industry and how environmental issues can be used to attract more women into the profession.

How can we attract and retain more women into civil engineering?
Louise Hetherington & Holly Smith discuss opportunities for women in the industry

Flexibility from employers, diversity within teams and getting rid of ‘unconscious bias’ are issues crucial to the success of attracting more women to the industry say our President’s Future Leaders, Holly Smith, a graduate engineer with Mott MacDonald and Louise Hetherington, a structural engineer with Atkins.

INWED’s theme this year is ‘Shape the World’ exploring how engineers can work to make our world a better place. There is also a strong focus on sustainable development and how all engineers can work towards a greener world.

Both Holly and Louise agree that a more collaborative approach and creating an atmosphere where skills are valued and people are empowered to flourish, is essential to achieving diversity within the sector.

“It’s about recognising the different world views that everyone brings to the table,” says Louise. “The differing views come about because we have inherently different experiences – and we can use those to build infrastructure that works for the whole of society. If we continue to recognise the importance of looking at things from different viewpoints and perspectives we can create infrastructure that better benefits the communities we all live in.”

Holly Smith agrees and adds that in order to attract and retain more women the industry should foster and nurture talent, tackle unconscious bias and improve flexibility. “It is vitally important that any individual can see a clear career path that enables them to commit to the industry for the long term,” says Holly. “Having senior figures, male or female guiding young talent to achieve their goals will undoubtedly improve retention.“

Employers must adopt flexible working patterns

Holly Smith on site in her role as a graduate engineer
Holly Smith on site in her role as a graduate engineer

Both women also agree that more flexibility from employers, on issues such as maternity leave, will help to attract and retain more female talent.

“We know that many women leave their careers around the time they start having families,” says Louise. “So it’s important that we find ways to ensure policies around flexible and part-time working are promoted and that employers recognise the benefit this more diverse workforce can bring. We can invest in the development of female talent, not to the detriment of male engineers, but to ensure the levelling up of careers. “

“By improving flexibility, we will create an industry that is more attractive to a wider range of people,” adds Holly.

“For example, in March 2020, major UK contractor Sir Robert McAlpine took a pioneering corporate stance on gender parity when it comes to family leave. “Irrespective of gender and sexual orientation, every parent is entitled to 26 weeks paid leave, no matter how their family grows (birth, adoption or surrogacy)”. This has stimulated reflective conversations across the industry; how would a career break affect my progression?

“This is a concern every woman inevitably faces if they intend to have a family but still wish to advance their career. This statement tackles unconscious bias by acknowledging that having time with the family is not just for women and empowers business leaders to ensure that ‘back to work’ is a great option for both genders.”

Eliminating 'unconscious bias'

Louise Hetherington on site in her role as a structural engineer
Louise Hetherington on site in her role as a structural engineer

“Unconscious bias is defined as ‘social stereotypes that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness’,” says Holly. “Everyone holds these biases and we must critically reflect on how they influence our behaviour. We must not let any stereotypes filter an individual’s potential, or compartmentalise by steering them into an area they are not actually as interested in.

“Research outlined in ‘Inclusive Leadership: Culture Change for Business Success’, shows that when leaders are perceived by their teams as being inclusive, 84% feel more motivated and 81% indicate it has a positive impact on their productivity. It is clear as an industry we will be better for balance, hence we must retain and attract the widest diversity of talent possible. “

Louise Hetherington believes that diversity is also the key to achieving new, greener initiatives within the industry.

“It has been shown through studies that girls relate more to the environmental side of the industry and we should use our aim for Net Carbon Zero by 2050 to encourage girls into civil engineering. Then, once they’re in the industry, we should strive to retain them. The statistics show that the number of women in the industry remains fairly static, although the overall number of women in STEM has increased. “

Greater diversity = greater success

In conclusion, both women agree that the greater cognitive diversity you have within a team, the greater the chances of success.

“If we work in a team with those like us, it may seem to be a more comfortable environment, but not necessarily one which challenges our typical way of thinking and stimulates ingenuity,” says Holly. “I believe gender diversity is only one aspect of this and we must create an inclusive environment where everyone can be valued for the experiences and insights they can contribute to the team.

“I’m proud to be a civil engineer – and enjoy constantly challenging the traditional stereotype of hard hats and high-vis," adds Louise. "The views I bring, as a woman, as a recent graduate, as a President’s Future Leader help me make a positive contribution to society. I look forward to celebrating other incredible engineers, who also happen to be women, on 23 June to #ShapeTheWorld.”

  • Louise Hetherington, ICE president's future leader 2019-2020 & structural engineer, Atkins
  • Holly Smith, ICE president's future leader 2019-2020 & graduate engineer, Mott MacDonald