n 2015, UK top companies reached a major milestone in increasing the number of women in their boardrooms, with the Davies report stating that all-male boards in the FTSE100 companies were a thing of the past. However, a recent Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) campaign report showed a different situation, revealing that out of 268 executive directorships across the FTSE 100, only 26 (or 9.7%) are held by women.
From my own experience as a principal engineering geologist often working on site, I have found that women make up less than 1% of the workforce. As we celebrate another International Women’s Day, it has become apparent that we need to do much more to tackle the gender gap.
This year’s international theme #BeBoldForChange, highlights the need for women to, "be unafraid to take on a challenge" and be "unflinching" when considering opportunities from a point of risk. I feel this theme raises awareness of the fact that women need to be bold in their career to seek information and put themselves forward for an opportunity, otherwise they’re at risk of being overlooked.
Looking at history, we‘ve had some fantastic role models and campaigns to draw inspiration from, such as the Pankhursts and Kearny’s campaign for women’s right to vote in 1918; while in 1977 Jayaben Desai led strikes against the Grunwick film processing plant that improved sympathy towards migrant workers, many of them women. And today, we have women such as Dawn Bonfield, former chief executive of the Women’s Engineering Society, and founder of the International Women in Engineering Day, who’s now working as the director for Towards Vision on campaigns to improve diversity and inclusion in the engineering sector and by doing so, provides a platform for women to shout about their achievements.
I have always looked for a challenge in my career by taking on large and complex infrastructure projects from Australia to the UK. The motivator behind this has always been to help the public, to change people lives for the better, and to assist in the development of society.
Recently, one of my main challenges came in the form of being the chair of Association for Consultancy and Engineering's Progress Network. This is the first board position of my career and it soon became apparent that as well as being the chair for Progress Network, I was also representing gender balance as I sat at the table with only three women out of 16 representatives.
Women on boards really do have additional responsibility to future generations: What we do now, will impact the future.
Much research has been done to show the benefits of having a diverse board of women and men who bring different experiences to ‘constructively synthesise’ a better outcome. For instance, the Harvard Business School has discussed the need to have diversity and conflict to spur innovation.
Women apply emotional intelligence at an earlier stage of their career and it is this maturity, this self-awareness and their assertion of personal values and experiences which can generate an idea that affects a greater number of people. In the past, women have had the power to draw attention to certain issues such as inadequate lighting near a metro, which has not only increased the sense of safety for women but for all pedestrians.
There are three points which I feel are important for the industry to forge a better working world.
Embracing the unusual path
We need to offer dynamic and flexible career routes into engineering. We can no longer limit ourselves to the project management and technical routes. We need to allow people to develop their engineering and consultancy skills along non-conventional routes if we want to improve diversity and bring out innovation. This is something we see more and more across the industry, with companies like WSP where we have women in leadership roles from a non-engineering background.
Our female role models need to be more vocal about their achievements and especially about what it’s like being in a leadership position and on a board. This can help other women decide if that is the opportunity they wish to pursue, and allow them to actively manage their careers. Women wishing to move forward should think about improving their leadership skills and join a committee or an association which can prove to be a very useful networking platforms.
Shaping our future leaders
I am a STEM ambassador and one of the most rewarding experiences is when I am engaging with young people and I sense their creative minds ticking over as I talk. I feel confident that the effort I put into preparing these events has helped them make a more informed decision about their future, while strengthening my communication skills.
For any women wishing to progress in their career I recommend becoming a STEM ambassador as it will improve their employability as it teaches them how to manage their time effectively, improves critical thinking as we break down technical problems to their basic forms, identify personal motivations for this sector, develops team building skills, and develops presentation skills. And success in these areas boosts confidence!
Most importantly, women need to progressively gain experience rather than dropping them in the deep end. We should look to support our female staff by encouraging them to be active in different sectors to broaden their experience; corporate, private, not for profit, academic and government. This insight will provide the industry with future leaders who can engage and collaborate across private, public and social contexts.
I have been working for 11 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. I have yet to reach my full potential and still have a huge appetite for learning, being challenged and I still need more doors to be opened as I knock loudly. So lets us together #BeBoldForChange, celebrate what we have achieved as individuals, and as an industry and develop a more inclusive and integrated approach so more women can reach their potential.
This blog originally appeared as an opinion piece in Infrastructure Intelligence.
Athena Livesey was previously chair of the ACE Progress Network.
ACE's Progress Network is now known as ACE Emerging Professionals. The group is sponsored by Mott MacDonald.