It’s all very well celebrating your female employees, but what are you doing to address the obstacles they face, asks Anna Beckett

Anna Beckett_columnist crop

The 23rd June was International Women in Engineering Day and as you might expect my LinkedIn was full of posts from engineering companies celebrating the women working for them. And while it was great to see these companies championing their female staff, it’s difficult not to feel a little cynical.

Are these companies only talking about these women because it’s good to post something on International Women in Engineering Day? Or are they actually working to implement changes that will help women behind the scenes as well?

Throughout the industry things do seem to be improving; the number of women joining the industry as graduates is increasing and we’re implementing changes to working practices that should create a fairer environment for everyone. One of the biggest changes over the last few years has been the increase in flexible working brought about by the pandemic, something that particularly helps anyone with children. And while there are still opportunities to improve in this area it’s clear that these changes are making a difference.

But unfortunately, the number of women in senior roles isn’t improving at the same rate. It’s something that as an industry we’ve recognised is a problem, but we don’t seem to be very good at doing anything about it.

Perhaps part of the issue is that we’re not really asking the right questions. Instead of asking women “how did you get into the construction industry?” or “do you think things are improving?” we should instead be asking “do you think everyone in this company gets the same opportunities?” and “do you think we could do more?”

Maybe not quite such a positive message to include on your social media but if the answers aren’t what we’d like them to be then we need to be willing to make changes.

In particular, we need to ensure that promotion structures are set up in a way that’s fair for everyone and that we’re valuing a range of different skills. There are numerous studies demonstrating that women approach promotion in a different way to men, usually because women wait until they know they can do the role before moving into it. Unless this is recognised then women are likely to be overlooked.

More generally we need to ensure that typically female characteristics are valued in the same way as those that are typically male. It’s easy to look for people who share the same skills that you have; you understand what you’re looking for and can place a value on it, but finding team members with different skills is much more valuable.

We also need to consider how we can keep women in the industry throughout their careers and how we can better support women returning to the industry after maternity leave. After a year out of the industry it’s difficult to pick up where you left off and it’s easy to feel like you’re getting left behind. We need to ensure that women have access to mentors who understand these issues and are able to support them.

But even more importantly we need to make sure that these questions are being asked in boardrooms across the industry, even if those boardrooms don’t currently have the diversity we’d like. Achieving a better gender balance isn’t just an issue for women, it’s an issue for everyone, and having a more diverse range of opinions can only be a good thing. Women will never be better represented at a senior level, if men aren’t willing to advocate for them as well.

So next year, when companies are putting together posts for International Women in Engineering Day, perhaps we need to ask a different, more challenging, set of questions. Because until we’re all willing to ask those difficult questions, we can’t hope to move the industry forward.