Mothers, tell your daughters: 'Engineering would be a great career for you'

Regional Director Penny Marshall talks to The Journal about her career as a female Civil Engineer

Regional Director, Penny Marshall.
Regional Director, Penny Marshall.
Penny aged 22 in her first engineering job at Tyne and Wear County Council
Penny aged 22 in her first engineering job at Tyne and Wear County Council

"I started my career in 1974 and I thought that gender parity would all be sorted out by now," said Penny. "But we have an issue where not enough young people, neither boys nor girls are entering these industries. I think it is a great career for anyone – good pay, varied roles and you can work all over the world."

Every time Penny drives down the A19 near the Nissan plant in Sunderland, she can't resist remarking to her children: "You know, I built that bridge." "Yes, we know!" They reply. But who can blame her? Thanks to her work hundreds of people can now easily cross the busy road to work every day, making a real difference to people's lives.

Penny also once stood on the muddy wasteland that is now the Metrocentre – Europe's biggest shopping centre – before setting to work on building the infrastructure that would make the landmark development even seem possible.

"Engineering is all around us every day," she explains. "But a lot of people don't realise what we actually do."

For Penny, the best way to describe engineers is as problem solvers - building solutions to real life issues. "When the client told me they wanted a footbridge, I decided the shape and what it would look like. I chose what it would be made of, did the calculations to ensure it wouldn't fall down, drew up the specifications and went to the site to supervise its construction.

"It's just a small footbridge, but I am still pretty proud that I did it and took an idea from a blank piece of paper through to a finished bridge that people can walk across."

Research has found that parents and especially mums need to be a key target audience in the drive to encourage more women into STEM careers.

"If we can reach out to mothers, to encourage them to say to their daughters: you're creative, you can do the sums, engineering would be a great career for you – that would be a good start," said Penny.

The Newcastle University civil engineering graduates class of 1978. Penny (front row, far right) was the only female to graduate from the course that year.
The Newcastle University civil engineering graduates class of 1978. Penny (front row, far right) was the only female to graduate from the course that year.

More insight into the industry to help young people, and also teachers, understand the diverse nature of the work is also vital, she believes. It was an "inspirational conversation" at a careers fair that changed the course of her future.

"I studied arts O Levels and at the careers fair all the traditional girls' careers were down one side and the boys' down the other," she said. "I just didn't fancy any on the girls' side so I got chatting to a civil engineer. I remember thinking 'I want to do that!' and so I went back and did a different set of O levels.

"I was the only female undergraduate on my engineering course. But it has never been a problem for me. Sometimes I did feel you had to prove you were capable, whereas with boys it was "assumed" you were capable unless something happened otherwise.

"We have a cohort of fabulous young women working in the sector and I do believe one day we won't need to be talking about women in construction. That will be when we achieve gender parity."

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