Visit Crossrail's Farringdon station worksite and you will see a team of young female engineers working alongside or supervising more than 200 mostly male workers, advising them on the works to do, inspecting quality and safety and developing complex solutions to any problems encountered. About twenty per cent of the engineers on this worksite are female but with the UK having the lowest representation of women in engineering of any European country - it is no surprise that many of these engineers are not from the UK. The problems start in school where one in two co-education state schools in the UK does not send a single woman to study A-level science, maths or technology subjects - ruling out progression into engineering. So, why is this the case?
A startling number of young women in schools don't consider engineering and construction as career options for them. Studies suggest that socio-economic background, advice from career advisors, teachers and parents are influencing factors. Some studies suggest that many young people view careers perceived to be physical jobs are jobs for men, while caring jobs are careers for women. In reality, there are few construction roles that require brute physical strength these days. Creativity, multi-tasking, organisation, communication and team work are the key skills to deliver successful projects. National Women in Engineering Day is an opportunity for the industry to work with schools and young people to break down stereotypes and promote engineering for what it is: an exciting, challenging and rewarding career.
Like many of the female engineers I work with, I come from a family with engineer role models. My childhood weekends were spent on family outings to see the latest progress on a nearby building or bridge construction. In my experience, when women know about engineering, they are more likely to choose it as a career. Crossrail and our contractors across our 45 London construction sites regularly visit local schools to run engineering challenges, talk about the variety of careers in construction, the excitement involved in building the impossible, and how fun it is to work with a team of brilliant and motivated people on a construction site - which I like to think of as a playground for adults with safety rules. Across the project, we have reached 10,000 students in the past year alone!
The industry recognises that attracting young people and particularly women is crucial to the future of the industry. But more than a PR campaign is needed to address the stark gender gap. There is recognition that more needs to be done to address work life balance and to ensure there are visible role models for young women. Long hours and working abroad traditionally have been part of the job and the required steps to management. Both men and women now place a greater importance on spending time with their family. Other sectors are creating greater flexibility for their workers and the construction industry must become more flexible in order to not only attract and retain women but also its men. For some of the construction sites staff, 12 hour shifts on a seven day on, four day off cycle is common place and can make balancing family and work more of a challenge. At age 34 and yet to have children, I fully expect to have a family and a successful career. I will just have to figure out how to make it all happen while working 14 hours a day!
Role models - like Crossrail's Central Section Director Ailie MacAdam in charge of Crossrail's £7.5 billion build of its central London stations and new tunnels - are crucial to showing women that engineering and construction are careers where they can progress to senior levels while having a successful family life.
What could we do to make a difference? Crossrail set a target for its contractors to employ 400 apprentices during the project and to ensure Londoners had opportunities. We are on track to meet that target this year - with four years still to go on the project. These jobs are for people with little or no experience in the construction sector. Crossrail and the contractors have worked with Jobcentre and unemployment groups near our worksites and succeeded in attracting Londoners to the jobs including black and ethnic minority youths representative of London's ethnic diversity. Yet, few construction apprentices have been women. Crossrail is seeking to address the imbalance by seeking to engage young women as they decide their career.
Other countries have set quotas for publicly funded infrastructure projects. I personally do not support quotas, but do believe that aspirational targets - goals to aim for - can help make sure employers adopt the right mind-set when hiring new engineers while still taking into consideration competency and merit above all.
Huge progress has been made in recent years to address the gender disparity in the construction sector, admittedly from an extremely low starting point - but with just 8.5% of UK engineers women, much more needs to be done quickly to not only address the gender gap but to avert a skills shortage in the UK construction and engineering industry.
Nisrine is Crossrail's Farringdon Project Manager, leading more than 600 workers in the complex construction of the new £250million station