13 Dec 2017

The work achieved to date seems to have been catalysed by legislation such as the Equality Act, but also by the changing of social mores. And yet we cannot escape the cold, hard fact that back in the 1970s women made up just 6% of the UK’s engineering workforce, and today that has only increased to 8%.

Sarah Simpson speaking at an evening hosted by NPS Group in Norwich | Royal HaskoningDHV | NPS Group

At last month’s event I was asked to talk about some of my own experiences in my career. I could have talked about the pride I felt at setting out my very first small construction scheme. Or I could have talked at length about the phenomenal team of people that I worked with to deliver spectator transport facilities for London 2012.

But really, they asked me to talk about my experiences as a woman in the sector. So what are they and how do they stand out to those of my colleagues who have overwhelmingly been men?

Encouraging diversity further upstream

There are of course some aspects that stand out for me in my career. I have always been, and continue to be, routinely one of no more than three women in the room.

This in itself isn’t a problem. I am increasingly of the view that the problem isn’t so much getting a better deal for women once they are in the sector, but rather it seems to be formed further upstream: getting more diversity in our prospective students.

Every time I go into a school, I come across the same thing. People have no idea what it is that I do for a living. I work in transport planning and it seems that for most people, roads are something that we just take for granted. Understandably, the idea that someone has to plan, design, and build a road is an alien concept for many people, and that seems to be the case for many aspects of our sector.

School starters

I visit schools fairly regularly and like to set A-Level students a problem to solve, usually along the lines of: if we want to build a supermarket on a field, what do we need to allow a customer to buy a tin of beans?

Typically, it’s at least five minutes before someone says “a building”! Once they get it though, it’s fascinating to see where their thinking takes them. I remember one occasion where a group of girls even got so far as considering the maintenance of till conveyor belts, and changing light bulbs! Project managers in the making – surely?

And yet I find that the majority of teachers don’t understand what it is that I do in my day job. How then, can we ask them to signpost their students to a career that might suit them?

If we are to increase our diversity, that needs to change.

Become agents for positive change

As I mentioned earlier, the sector is already doing plenty to address this – and we need to. By last year’s estimates, engineering in the UK already needs around 500,000 more people just to complete the work on the books now.

The STEM Ambassadors programme has been really successful in getting people who work in the sector into schools, together with engaging resources to make students and school children think widely across a subject. But we aren’t seeing that translate into huge numbers of people signing up for apprenticeships or technical degrees in the subject.

So what can we do? If we work in the sector, there is huge value in taking pride in our work. Everyone knows and understands about teachers, sales reps and lawyers just through day to day life or TV. But how much do we talk with people about the work that we do?

Do we allow our passion for the subject to enthuse others or do we squash it through a sense of it not being interesting enough? Do the children in your life know that the pleasure they get in building with Lego is exactly the same satisfaction that can come from our work?

I’d encourage us all to look for ways of harnessing our own enthusiasm and passing it forward. If you have an opportunity to open your team up to a work experience placement, take it. If you are asked to go to a sixth form careers fair, do it.

If we can see ourselves as agents for positive change in the sector, then we will no longer be merely ‘celebrating’ women in construction, but directly contributing to creating a more diverse and creative sector, which is more truly representative of the communities in which we live and work.

Sarah Simpson speaking at an evening hosted by NPS Group in Norwich | Royal HaskoningDHV | NPS Group

Sarah Simpson, Director of Transport Planning for Royal HaskoningDHV, holds the role of Vice Chair of the Women in the Built Environment non-profit based in Norwich. She is also a member of the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation’s Diversity and Inclusion Panel.