Engineering isn't the macho world it was 25 years ago

Girly calendars on workplace walls might be a thing of the past, but girls still need encouraging to become engineers.

by Jo da Silva
Last Updated: 22 Apr 2016

When I was training as an engineer 25 years ago, I had to spend a month in a team of 40- to 50-year-old draftsmen. There were girly calendars on the walls. In those days you'd open a trade magazine and they'd have a girl in a bikini holding a trowel in a brick advert. I was pretty much always the only woman in any meeting, but you just got used to it.

I was interviewed for 35 Women Under 35 in 2001 when I was working on the Royal Geographic Society refurbishment. That was the first project where I had a female client. I noticed it made a difference. I felt less conspicuous. My previous project had been Wembley Park Station where the team had all been men. Now female clients are very normal, and last year more than 35% of the graduates Arup recruited were women, from a pool of around 14%.

In the 80s, when I studied at Cambridge University, it was all about science and technology. But what I was interested in was design and engineering as an enabler of society. When I started working, it was on projects with world-class architects like Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. I was very focused on designing buildings that contributed to society such as the National Portrait Gallery refurbishment. I particularly enjoyed designing schools and university campuses, and a Surestart nursery in south London - offices never interested me.

At the same time, I got involved with a charity called RedR that trains and sends engineers out to post-disaster situations. My first assignment was in Tanzania during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

A decade later, when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, I was asked to go to work for the UN in Sri Lanka. It was one of the rare jobs you can't refuse, where you think, 'It's got me on the label.' I was coordinating about 100 NGOs to build 60,000 shelters, working closely with the government. Less than a year after the tsunami no-one was living in tents.

When I came back I realised I'd reached one of those crossroads in my life. I was interested in the challenges rapid urbanisation present in developing countries, and the need for infrastructure. I felt there was a unique opportunity to establish a not-for-profit business that focused on international development, but drew on the knowledge of 12,000 people within Arup.

Now we're working with the Rockefeller Foundation on making cities more resilient. In Bangladesh, we're helping the International Labour Organization train local firms to carry out assessments of factories after the Rana Plaza collapse. And we're advising the World Bank on building safer schools in earthquake zones.

Back in the UK, more still needs to be done to encourage girls to study science and engineering. When I was younger, I used to get invited to speak to schools about being a woman engineer. It always seemed odd. No-one talks about a man engineer. Interviewers would want to take a photograph of me wearing a hard-hat on a building site. It perpetuates the stereotype of engineering being a macho, construction-worker career, whereas I actually sat in an office behind a computer.

Times have changed. I did a shoot for Vogue the other day. The Royal Academy of Engineering asked me to, because apparently it's women my age with children selecting their GCSE subjects who discourage their daughters from doing triple science. My step-daughter is that age, so I said yes. Several friends of mine have seen the article because their teenage daughters have shown it to them, so whoever did the research at the Royal Academy got it right.

Men have shaped the cultures of most workplaces. That's a fact. When you're younger what matters is your competency. But as one's career progresses the gender issues surface, because the job is much more about relationships. It's easy to put the fall-out rate of women down to having children, but there are more subtle issues around women realising they're part of a very male culture and asking, 'How do I retain my femininity and be a brilliant director?' It's important for women to have role models.

I like to believe that you can do anything if you really want to do it enough and apply yourself. But I certainly wouldn't have achieved everything I've done if there hadn't been people along the way who'd put me forward for an opportunity, or knocked me into shape.

There have been occasions where I've been told that I was over-emotional, and I've been fine with it. But others when I've been assertive and accused of being aggressive, where I've raised an eyebrow.

When Sir Tim Hunt said men and women shouldn't work together in labs because of the risk of falling in love I thought, 'what a dinosaur'. The #distractinglysexy photos on social media are a perfect response. They just show how absurd his comment is and how confident female scientists are now.

Jo da Silva is a director at Arup where she leads the international development group, and is also an Arup Fellow. Jo da Silva was in the first 35 Women Under 35 list in 2001. See the 2015 list here

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