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National Women in Engineering Day: Retaining talent and ending discrimination

In my experience I have found that, on site, women make up less than 1 per cent of the permanent construction workforce.

This may be because of the inherent risks and that, historically, physical strength was necessary, but also because public perceptions are of a traditionally male-dominated and occasionally chauvinistic industry.

In today’s sophisticated and highly competitive industry, leaders need to embrace diversity of thought and attract people from widely differing backgrounds and cultures, who approach and solve the same problem from different perspectives.

I frequently witness projects developed, designed and constructed using familiar tried and tested techniques. However, we are facing rapidly evolving challenges and change is now the norm.

We need more effective communicators, sensitive to the needs of their clients, able to respond to broadening social attitudes and empathetic to the perceptions of all those affected by construction work.

Successful projects require successful teams, and successful teams are all about understanding each other’s needs and being aware of each other’s values and views. Women have plenty to offer.

Breaking down barriers nationally

We need a threefold approach to encourage more women to join the industry.

First, we need to shatter stereotypes by engaging the public through media and documentaries and open days on projects similar to Open House in London. We also need media coverage of regional projects to encourage women in the regions to choose a career in engineering.

“We need more inspirational women to be far more visible in these lead engineering and construction roles”

We need to showcase all the different roles involved in making a project come to life – from environmental, hydrology, civil engineers and geologists to community liaison, stakeholder engagement and project manager.

And most importantly, we need more inspirational women to be far more visible in these lead engineering and construction roles.

My experience has been incredibly positive, as I work in a company where 20 per cent of the employees are female. However, an awful lot more can be done to attract women into the profession and, most importantly, retain them.

New policies must be put in place, such as using merit-based processes to eradicate unconscious bias and training all staff in bias and stereotypes.

Other strategies could involve creating policies for part-time working, identifying and training women for panels and board positions, creating structured leadership development programmes, and organising more networking events such as our Women in Leadership ones.

Educating the next generation

I am a STEM ambassador and also work on a company initiative called Launchpad where we develop a relationship with a school for two years and show students how STEM is applicable to everyday life.

Engineers need to meet not only the children but the families too, because they are also unaware of the many careers in engineering and construction.

“We need to back up what we are saying with robust examples and by being role models in the industry”

The families will have their own perceptions and worries about the industry: that it’s dangerous, that there’s lack of career path and a lack of reward. We need to back up what we are saying with robust examples and by being role models in the industry.

My career has taken me to places I could only have imagined when I did my A-levels.

I have now been working for 10 years, and have travelled from the UK to Australia and across the Arabian Peninsula, creating a global network and contributing to a legacy of impressive projects that have helped millions of people.

What woman wouldn’t want to do that?

Athena Livesey is principal engineering geologist at WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff

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