Gender equality was an ever-present theme throughout the US presidential election. It was the first time a woman had been a genuine contender for the job – a significant moment in history.
The result will go down in history for very different reasons but it means the metaphorical glass ceiling will remain intact for a few more years at least. What’s more it has prompted a charged debate into what it says about professional gender equality and whether the treatment of women in certain male- dominated professions has actually changed as much as we like to think it has.
‘The school I attended in Ireland – Laurel Hill, Limerick – encouraged girls to study STEM subjects. There were no barriers presented to choosing engineering as a career,’ says Joan Murray, managing director of TPS Schal, Carillion’s consultancy business.
Less than 10 per cent of the engineering workforce in the UK are women; the figure for the rail industry as a whole is only slightly higher. The rail sector’s challenge may not be the same as putting the first woman in the White House, but the goal is ultimately the same.
A survey conducted by Women in Rail in 2015 calculated that around 16 per cent of the workforce is female. The balance is gradually shifting. More women now occupy senior management roles – Carillion Rail’s head of engineering and professional head of civil engineering are both women, but the pace of change is slow. It is a sector which rather than smashing through the glass ceiling is choosing to carefully dismantle it piece by piece.
Almost 40 per cent of Carillion’s 21,000 or so staff members in the UK are female. Within the construction business around 12 per cent are women and the rail division is hovering around 13 per cent, slightly below the industry standard.
Joan founded the Support Network for Operational Women in Engineering (SNOWE) programme within Carillion, which was set up shortly after she was promoted to managing director of TPS Schal in 2015. The main objectives of SNOWE, which sits alongside Carillion’s pre-existing Women in Leadership and Working Mums Network groups, are to support women in operational engineering roles within the business and to promote the study of STEM subjects in schools.
The network, which is made up of both men and women, provides guidance and encouragement to women working throughout Carillion using a ‘buddy’ support system; it has also developed a teaching programme that can be delivered to schools. The aim overall is to aid staff retention and attract more women to the sector.
Says Joan, ‘Girls do not study STEM subjects in the same numbers as boys do. Without a diverse group of people studying then it becomes impossible to employ a diverse workforce.
‘We need more girls studying STEM subjects to improve the potential employment talent of the future. If we don’t improve the numbers of females studying STEM subjects we run the risk of never being able to employ a truly diverse workforce.’
FUN JOBS AND SERIOUS JOBS
SNOWE has grown out of several similar initiatives undertaken by the business. In 2014, Carillion signed up to the Compact Pledge – a national campaign led by Women into Technology and Engineering Compact to increase the number of women training in technology and engineering. In all, 180 companies made the pledge. Carillion also backs the Your Life STEM education campaign.
Joan hopes through SNOWE she can replicate the kind of support that she received while at school. ’Girls with the abilities to tackle higher level maths and science were given every opportunity and support to achieve their very best. Girls were offered the same choices as boys and the freedom to follow paths which were not the traditional female career options. Such enlightened teaching created pupils who saw no restriction in what they chose to study and no barriers to entry in any chosen profession.
‘We need all schools to be like this, to give girls the opportunity to study both the sciences and the humanities. The learning experience should teach girls that they too can have the fun jobs, and the serious jobs, and the jobs in the boardroom. Nothing should prevent girls from becoming engineers if they want to do so.’
Joining Carillion as a graduate civil engineer, Joan has worked within the business for more than 19 years and became the company’s first female managing director. Engineering is out of kilter with society, says Joan. ‘Whether you’re going into a site meeting or a board room, when you sit there and you’re the only woman – no matter what happens – you’re still different.’
It’s this imbalance, rather than some overtly discriminatory macho culture, which she believes can make it difficult for women to speak up and have their ideas listened to.
‘All my life, I have been part of a workforce where less than 10 per cent of the population are female,’ says Joan. ‘Being part of a minority brings its own set of unique challenges and so requires an innovative way to deal with them. There did not seem to be any obvious means to support those women engineers in the day-to-day challenges of working in a male-dominated profession. As a consequence retention of female engineers is an ongoing concern.’
She added, ’We are saying that we value their contributions and we want them to be part of the workforce. I most definitely feel that I should be a role model for more junior women.’
SNOWE is already showing signs of success. ‘We are on a journey to improve the rates and our commitment in Carillion is to increase the number of women in apprenticeships to five per cent over the next five years. We are in year two and working to achieve our target.
‘We have a number of fantastic female role models within Carillion as well as many STEM Ambassadors. Our website has a web page dedicated to inspirational women in our company working in operational roles leading the way.’
The next step, Joan hopes, will see the model for SNOWE replicated by companies across the engineering and rail sector.
Says Joan, ‘SNOWE came about from a very simple idea. It always seemed to me that something was missing in relation to how we supported female engineers in construction. Networks are hard to get up and running, but we have succeeded within Carillion and we are making a real difference.’