Civil engineering needs to learn how to retain female engineers – New Civil Engineer

23 Jun, 2022 By Anusha Shah
Each year, International Women in Engineering Day generates a flurry of motivational social media posts to encourage girls to consider a career in engineering. This is hugely welcomed but we must also get better at retaining the talented women we already have.
But why is it important to increase the number of women in engineering? The practical reason is that there is a skills gap in this country and we should be drawing on the talents of all genders if we are to fill it. The pragmatic reason is that the people we rely on to plan and design our vital infrastructure should reflect the society they serve. That is manifestly not the case at present with women making up only 14.5% of the engineering workforce, according to Engineering UK.

Anusha Shah is ICE vice president and senior director of resilient cities at Arcadis
The other equally compelling reason is that women bring different perspectives and strengths that the profession desperately needs if it is to tackle the great challenges of our time, such as the climate and ecological emergency. This includes emotional and cultural intelligence and skills of nurturing and empathy – what I term as “essential” skills. Of course, this doesn’t mean that women don’t possess the “hard” skills traditionally valued in the profession.
These essential skills are needed, especially at a leadership level. As we face unprecedented challenges, alternative models of leadership that value people and planet over profit are needed more than ever. New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern has spoken about how she sees kindness and empathy as important qualities for any leader and how these should not be seen in opposition to strength and assertiveness.
The good news is that the gender imbalance in engineering is now well known and many organisations have gender-related targets and programmes in place. This is gradually making a difference. Women now make up almost a quarter of ICE graduate members and we have seen the overall number of female members double since 2008.
But while we see many more women entering the profession, we still have a big problem with retention. So why are we losing so many talented women along the way?
The reasons are complex. Ranging from straight-up discrimination, to not being taken seriously and microaggressions. We need to hear the voices of women who have left the industry or who are currently facing discrimination in order to treat the root causes. A #MeToo moment for the industry. And we also need more role models to aspire to – female leaders at the top of the profession are few and far between. It is shocking that fewer than 300 of our 5,000 ICE Fellows – around 6% – are women.
One of the ways ICE is seeking to speed up this change is through networking events and mentorship. The inaugural ICE Connects event in October last year brought together the ICE’s female Fellows from 15 countries, across five continents. I hope that facilitating such a network will help to address the sense of isolation felt by many female civil engineers.
These are systemic and cultural changes, and they are vital, but so are the actions of brave women and their male allies. We need to start demanding change and pursuing roles we know we can excel at instead of just taking the roles we are given. We also need to be aware of “glass cliffs” – being assigned projects that are set up to fail.
Women also need to know they are not alone – there is support available to help them shine and thrive in the industry.
As Maya Angelou said: “Nothing can dim the light which shines from within.”
 
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I completely agree with Anusha’s first paragraph – designers must reflect those for whom they design. I was compelled to comment, however, as subsequent paragraphs present the idea that female engineers bring [i] qualities and male engineers [j] qualities. Whether or not either set is beneficial or necessary and separate to methods to accelerate change (with which I also agree), we need to avoid compartmentalising.
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