The UK has a proud engineering history, but for that to continue the sector must improve its diversity and inclusion. In the last few years, the Royal Academy of Engineering estimated 92% of engineers were men and while steps are being made to improve gender representation it will be some time before we reach equality. 

It’s not common knowledge that women have always been present in the engineering field, and numbers have traditionally been low. Female engineers remain under-represented within the sector, with the Institute of Engineering and Technology reporting that just nine percent of engineers are women.

Throughout history, women have played significant roles in huge engineering projects, from internationally recognised bridges to everyday objects. You may have heard of Ada Lovelace, who worked with Charles Babbage on the analytical engine. Now considered by many to be the world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace was a significant contributor to the world of technology and engineering. More recently, Roma Agrawal was the structural engineer of the Shard in London and cites here her physics teachers’ supportiveness as one of the reasons she went into construction.

However, there are many other women who deserve just as much attention for what they have done in the construction, property and engineering fields.

An interview with Angela. 

Angela Carney, Consultant and Director at Carney Consultancy, has worked in the construction industry for over 30 years, in both engineering and site management roles. 

Ahead of the launch of the Randstad 2020 Women in Construction report, Angela spoke to us about life as a woman in a male-dominated industry and the challenges she had to overcome. From gender discrimination to being passed over for promotions, Angela shares details on her insuring career. 

Angela started in the industry earning her civil engineering degree from the University of Leeds. Over 25 years later, she is a Chartered Member of Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Practitioner Member of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, Registered Member of the Association of Project Safety and Incorporated Member of Chartered Institute of Building. She holds a diploma in Occupational Safety and Health and an Associate Certificate in Environmental Management as well as being a member of many organisations who pledge to better the Construction industry. 

How did you get into civil engineering and what was your experience?

I got into it by accident. My father's a Civil Engineer, however, when I was younger, I wanted to be a doctor like my grandmother. 

I had a gap year where I worked in an admin role, and while working at the company, I became friends with someone that was doing a course in civil engineering at the local college. One day I mentioned to the people I worked with that I wished I could do what my friend was doing - it looked interesting and I was keen to get involved. In an effort to support my new found interest, my director enrolled me at college to begin a civil engineering course. 

After two years at college studying civil engineering, I managed to get high enough grades to go straight to university at Leeds. The Company I worked for sponsored me. The University accepted me from the ONC day release Course, as they knew I was serious about this career and because I had already gained two years of relevant industry experience. 

I did my degree in civil engineering, however, after university, I moved into the building industry. I worked hard to make an impact. I was fortunate enough to be promoted quickly and soon took on site manager tasks.

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I quickly found out that I would be treated differently because of my gender"

Did you experience gender discrimination in your role?

I quickly found out that I would be treated differently because of my gender. I was told that people wouldn't do certain things because I was a woman, and I was deliberately misled before my ICE exams resulting in me failing. 

The gender discrimination was at times soul destroying when I was working in the North East, they demoted my role from site manager to engineer, effectively sending my career backwards. There ethos was I couldn’t be a Site Manager until I was a fully experienced time served Engineer. The fact that the two roles needed different skill sets were not taken into account. 

This discrimination continued, and I was presented with the same issue suffered by many women in male-dominated workforces - I was passed up for promotions and overlooked for heading up important projects. 

Unfortunately, I discovered that becoming a mother would also go against me career-wise. Before I got pregnant I was asked when I was planning to have a baby. When I did get pregnant I was told that I couldn't come back as a site manager as they deemed as a woman I would be the primary child carer and my manager at the time, therefore, deemed me to be unreliable. He didn’t ask, he told me this would be the case.

When you were entering the industry did you know that you would be facing this level of gender bias?  

I didn't realise it would be quite the way it was. And I'll be honest, I used to come home at night in tears, for quite a while. It was hard going. 

I was told by managers that they would break me. I was literally told ‘we will break you’. For example, I was made to pick the cigarette butts out of the men's urinal, and this was before gloves were a recognised piece of PPE on sites. I had no idea it would be that bad. 

Have you seen a change from when you were first in the industry to now?

Yes, definitely. I don't hear half the stories now that I’ve been through and I’m so pleased about that. Generally, I do think it's a lot better, a lot more accepting, a lot more women coming into it, which is what makes the difference. Times are changing and we’ve certainly moved on. From looking at the number of female workers in construction and engineering compared to 30 years ago, the difference is incredible. 

What do you think is bringing more women into the industry?

I think the male-dominated culture is shifting. But I think it's more the fact that we're publicising the industry more to women as an option. I think that schools can do more to promote the industry to females. The industry is finally realising the benefits to a mixed more diverse workforce. Women bring skills men don’t naturally possess.

From our survey, we found that the top three things that would keep more women in the industry would be equal pay, equal growth opportunities and flexible working hours do you agree with these? 

I have a lot of women who work for me who are part-time and that's how I attracted them. A lot of people, not just women don’t want to work full time, especially when they have a family. I think the lack of flexibility is why we lose them. Work-life balance is key, it’s not just about the salary. 

My advice is that we need to show as an industry, where we can work, and how we can work and what the benefits are. Women are still predominantly the primary child carers and a part of that is because quite often they are the ones that are in lower-paid or lower-skilled work. I am not sure this is always their choice but the fact that they are not given the opportunities and encouraged from school and are not granted equal pay.

What can be done to combat gender discrimination in the industry?

We have got to start at the grassroots in terms of getting more women into the trades as much as into the professions. Schools need to do a lot more in terms of promoting this industry to females. The industry has a huge skills shortage however it is still discounting 50% of the population by not actively trying to get women in. 

The industry will not change and will not get significantly better until you get more equality and diversity. You need to utilise women’s unique skill sets, the same way we utilise men’s. 

Are you glad you decided to embark on a career in construction?

It's been an interesting career and I wouldn’t change any of it, it's shaped me into who I am now. I love construction, I absolutely love it. I rarely have issues with colleagues on the same level or above me. I don’t stand for this any longer if I do. I found that a lot of the time management was the problem. I think they feel threatened by you. The workforce was always welcoming of me and helped me. Employers are now a lot savvier and women in the construction workplace are thankfully a lot better represented. 

I’m looking forward to seeing how the industry continues to adapt over time to attract a more diverse workforce.