Diversity is a key driver of innovation. If we’re to realise our ambitions for a world class transport system in the Heartland, it is imperative that those planning, designing, constructing and operating infrastructure are exposed to new ideas, new ways of working and doing things.
This is one of the biggest messages to come out of my discussion with two brilliant young women to coincide with today’s International Women in Engineering Day.
Lucy Ellis is a section engineer working for the East West Rail Alliance between Bicester and Bletchley. Having completed her A-Levels at Silverstone UTC she undertook a degree apprenticeship with Laing O’Rourke in Civil and Structural Engineering which she completed last year.
Sherin Francis is a Principal Transport Planner at Jacobs who holds a Bachelor of Technology in Civil Engineering from the Mahatma Gandhi University, India and an MSc. Eng. in Transport Planning and Engineering from the University of Leeds. As I learnt during our discussion, she has previously worked in Qatar to deliver key road improvements ahead of the World Cup, and she has also managed projects with key public sector transport authorities in the UK. She is currently seconded to EEH to work on our ‘centre of excellence’ plans to increase transport planning skills and capacity in our region.
We discussed how, while the number of female engineers is increasing, women are still very much in the minority – estimates suggest around 14-16% of all engineers are women. This means there is so much potential talent which remains untapped – the innovators of tomorrow who would bring fresh perspectives and skillsets. As Lucy said: “A more diverse team will give more opportunities for discussions about different ways we can undertake a task more efficiently and effectively.”
For Lucy and Sherin it was a love of problem solving and figuring out how things work which first drew them to engineering as a career. However, both suggested that the sector still has an image problem – as Sherin put it, that engineering is ‘very hands-on, you have to get your elbows greased, and you’re working in between machines’.
However, Sherin and Lucy agree this is often not the case and new technologies means working practices are constantly evolving.
So how do we change this perception and encourage more girls to get involved in STEM and take up engineering? Well, of course, Lucy and Sherin and others like them are doing fantastic jobs as role models, which can only help encourage more girls to consider engineering careers.
Lucy believes we need to target girls young – at primary level, to make them understand that it’s ‘fine to play with Lego, it’s fine to be interested in construction, it’s fine to want to do the things that the boys in school are doing’.
Sherin had a number of ideas to support young women get into engineering, including mentoring them ahead of interviews: “I can’t stress how important it is to guide students, especially young women, to give them the skills to know how to do a good interview and bring out the best strengths from their experience and skills.”
Ultimately, what came through is how much both Lucy and Sherin enjoy their jobs. A career in engineering and transport in general can be enormously rewarding and fun, no matter what gender you are.
As Sherin said: “It is perhaps the impact of my work which I believe is quite profound, quite different and makes such an impact on people’s lives.” And for Lucy: “I love the fact you can look out of your window and see the changes you are doing and the positive impact you are having on communities.”
Today, on International Women in Engineering Day, I can’t help but reflect on the imperative on all of us to inspire young women and to open their eyes, from the earliest of ages, to the many opportunities that engineering and STEM subjects in general can offer.
EEH managing director