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Women bring bad luck at sea? Not today they don’t

08 March 2023

Coastal engineer Nadia Genovese shines a spotlight on the positive impact of women on the marine environment, ahead of Breakwaters 2023.

Women bring bad luck at sea? Not today they don’t
Working with water was a no-brainer for Nadia Genovese, who grew up in a coastal Italian town. Image credit: Nadia Genovese

For hundreds of years, it was considered bad luck to have a female at sea, or onboard a sailboat.

Fortunately, times have changed.

And you only need to look at the calibre of women in my sector, of marine engineering, to see by how much.

From the first female member of the ICE to today

In an interview in 1978 in the New Civil Engineer magazine, Dorothy Donaldson Buchanan, the first female civil engineer granted membership of the ICE in December 1927, remarked that she felt that she represented all the women in the world and hoped that she “would be followed by many more”. 

And that has certainly been the case.

From the first female member of the ICE in 1927, nearly 100 years later there are now nearly 15,000 females, representing 15.7% of the ICE membership.  

Gender equality in engineering has a long way to go

According to EngineeringUK, 16.5% of engineers are female, with a total female workforce of 936,000 in the UK.

While there has been progress, a report by the Institute of Employment Studies in conjunction with Atkins in 2021 highlighted that it would take more than another 100 years for there to be the same number of women as men working in engineering occupations overall.

Dorothy’s legacy

Buchanan had a massive impact on civil engineering at the time, being involved in building the iconic Sydney Harbour and George V Tyne bridges, as well as Lambeth bridge in central London.

And despite the challenges for women her legacy has been felt across the whole of the engineering sector.

The women of Breakwaters 2023

Scrolling though the names of the women involved in the Breakwaters 2023 conference, you cannot help but appreciate how their high-profile work has impacted not just the conference programme, but also the wider maritime engineering sector.

Among the women on the organising (alongside me) and the international scientific committee are:

  • Women who have made concrete and steel structure for ports their life career.
  • Women who have spent 20+ years in flood risk and hydraulic design, helping to push boundaries on numerical modelling.
  • Women who have preferred to become experts on breakwaters and scour protection, coastal revetments, and beach nourishment.
  • Women who have dedicated their lives to education, teaching wave/current interactions, extreme overtopping and run-up, tsunami effects and fluid dynamics at universities.
  • And women who have opted for a totally different field, like construction, and are managing heavy machinery, materials, and workmanship on large sea-related infrastructure projects across the globe.

Understanding the effects of our work on the planet’s equilibrium

Looking back at my own career, I can only say it was not a coincidence that I became a coastal engineer.

I was brought up in a small coastal city in southern Italy, where it feels like summer all year long, and spent much of my youth sailing.

Working with water was just meant to be.

Throughout my career, I’ve learnt that every time we create a new perimeter structure into the sea, for instance a breakwater harbour or a jetty, or an artificial island, it leads to a breach in an equilibrium that has consequences on a small and large scale.  

Understanding this, and the fact that the climate is changing with stronger storms and higher sea levels, is the key to building structures which are safe, reliable and will have a positive impact on human life and nature.

The common goal that unites all engineers

At the end of the day, we still need to build upon the legacy of the likes of Dorothy Buchanan and the role models of the past.

But as engineers, irrespective of gender, we all aim for just one thing: to build systems where people and planet can live side by side.

And where it has been breached, to re-establish that equilibrium.

Breakwaters 2023

Nadia Genovese is part of the organising committee for the ICE Coastal, Marine Structures and Breakwaters 2023 conference taking place between 25-27 April in Portsmouth, UK.

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  • Nadia Genovese, associate at COWI