Engineering Heroes

Researching this piece to celebrate International Women In Engineering Day 2021 on June 23rd, I came across an article describing how in the late 1960’s an applicant for a job to be a trainee surveyor received a rejection letter telling her the job ‘would not be suitable for a lady’. The girl in question was Kathryn Ladley who wasn’t deterred by this setback and, in 1977 became one of only three women to hold both an IQS and RICS qualification. In 2017 she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement in Construction accolade at the European Women in Construction and Engineering Awards. Kathryn describes her feelings on the day she received her rejection as ‘annoying, but not really outraged’ – it was just how things were then.

So, how has the world of engineering and construction changed over the past 50 years? Thankfully, society has come a long way in its view of women and discrimination and equality laws have made the workplace a fairer environment for all. However, although it seems that schools today reflect the changes in wider society and are less likely to pigeonhole girls and boys into gender stereotyped activities and careers, still only 12% of engineering roles in the UK are filled by women. This is being put down to poor understanding of what engineering, in all its variety, can be and perceptions that it is ‘too technical’, ‘boring’ or even ‘dirty and messy.’ These factors, of course, still don’t make it a job for men and a ‘no go’ area for women, but a greater understanding of the huge breadth of what engineers actually do and the so called ‘soft skills’ that women can bring, would surely help girls to realise as they choose their subjects at school that they too can aspire to these jobs and careers.  

It feels like early days, but as more women progress up the engineering career ladder then at last there will be more role models for the new generations coming through. They will be better able to imagine their future selves playing their part in the engineering world at all levels. Workplaces will become more welcoming and attractive as practices become more suited to women and provide the greater flexibility needed to retain them.

The theme for INWED 21 is ‘Engineering Heroes’ – my nomination is Dorothy Donaldson Buchanan who was the first female member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). In an interview for the New Civil Engineer’ in 1978 she recounted her surprise on arrival at her interview at ICE headquarters at Great George Street in 1927, that there was another woman in the waiting room. She wasn’t another candidate however, but a chaperone, brought in for the sake of decency. Now with a room named after her in the same building where she sat that interview, her words are poignant – ‘I felt that I represented all the women in the world. It was my hope that I would be followed by many others.’