Elizabeth Donnelly

At Lanes Group, we understand that efforts to create more opportunities for women in the drainage and utilities sectors will require an industry-wide commitment to dismantle any barriers that have traditionally held female workers back.

As such, we are proud to support and promote the work of the various industry organisations that are delivering on this goal.

The Women’s Engineering Society (WES) is a leading example of this push toward gender equality. Originally founded in 1919, the charity has been promoting the education of women in engineering for more than 100 years, and operates a professional network of women engineers, scientists and technologists to offer inspiration, support and professional development to skilled female professionals striving to succeed in this sector.

Lanes has organised a Q&A with WES chief executive officer Elizabeth Donnelly, who has generously given her time to share some of her expert insights into what businesses need to do to bring more women into the engineering and utilities sectors, as well as steps that female professionals can take to give themselves the best possible chance of a successful career.

What is the core mission of the WES?

The Women’s Engineering Society’s mission is to support women in engineering to fulfil their potential and support the engineering industry to be inclusive. We focus on:

  1. Supporting women in engineering at every stage of their career;
  2. Supporting businesses and institutions to attract and retain women in engineering; and
  3. Shaping the engineering gender diversity debate in the industry and with the government.

We deliver professional development support, including mentoring, webinars, access to jobs, and voluntary roles and networking opportunities that are specifically targeted at women in engineering who want to progress in their careers. We do this through our WES platform, with a multi-tier subscription model that reflects our members’ career stages, or through employers or educational institutions who subscribe on behalf of their people. We also campaign on key issues related to gender diversity in arenas with government, regulators and institutions.

Since our origins over a century ago, we have always provided opportunities for women engineers to meet together to share experiences and knowledge, and this continues today through social media, webinars and virtual events. Some of this will continue beyond the pandemic because it allows us to reach more people in diverse locations.

I joined WES in the summer of 2018, and since then I have professionalised WES by improving its governance to create a more stable Board of Trustees, enhanced our messaging by employing a marketing company to work for us, and expanded our staffing by employing passionate people with a lot of expertise in account and membership management. I have stabilised our financial position despite the pandemic, generating a surplus for two out of three years, and returning a small deficit in the first year of the pandemic. WES is on track to deliver the highest surplus of my tenure at the end of this financial year and restore more than two-thirds of lost income during the pandemic.

We have plans to begin delivering events in person during 2022, which will generate more income and reach out to more women and companies than ever.

What is the current state of female recruitment in utilities?

Women currently make up 16.5% of all engineers in the UK, which is an improvement on the 12.4% recorded in 2016. However, it is still not enough, and being so outnumbered by men means women find it difficult to get into engineering and to progress in their careers, despite their talents.

Cultural barriers include:

  • A lack of encouragement for girls to study maths and sciences at schools at an advanced level
  • Funnelling girls who do achieve good results in maths and science into medicine, teaching and research at school, rather than being encouraged to work in engineering
  • Scepticism from boys and young men that girls and young women have secured apprenticeships and university places on their own merit, despite girls and young women’s results being much better than boys and young men’s
  • Denial of advancement at work from sceptical managers and employers, despite evidence of high achievement

Structural barriers include:

  • Algorithms in evaluating CVs that mark down women when gender indicators are present
  • Male-coded job adverts that prevent women from applying
  • Lack of pay transparency that leads to women not negotiating bigger salaries, and attitudes of recruiters that celebrate saving money on recruitment, but don’t appreciate they’ve increased their gender pay gap
  • Too many “essential” criteria in job adverts that put women off applying, despite being well-qualified for the role, because women think they don’t fit the criteria
  • A lack of female role models on websites and in workplaces, thus women feel they stand out – not every woman wants to be a trailblazer
  • A lack of well-fitting PPE and toilet facilities, particularly on outdoor sites
  • An assumption that women won’t want to work in field camps or similar sites where the work would involve “roughing it”
  • Unconscious bias, where there is no intent to discriminate against women, but workplaces, working hours and deadlines have been created without considering the needs and responsibilities of women

We know that the number of women engineers is increasing, but a lot of this is for roles that are not typically in engineering companies. Engineering firms still seem to be unappealing to women. Partly, this may be because non-engineering firms already employ a lot of women in non-engineering roles, so the companies are set up to support women.

Improvement in engineering firms will only come when there are more women employed, so it is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. Improvements in websites and publicity show it is people, particularly women, rather than infrastructure that will help, and there are ways that WES can support companies to improve advertising and recruitment.

How should the industry be looking to address this?

I’d like to see the engineering/utilities sector working in tandem with the government to solve these problems. On the government side, efforts need to be made to emphasise the value of engineering in its conversations and publicity – but there are barely two engineers in Parliament, so it’s not high on their radar. I’d like to see design and technology back on the national curriculum and more engineering in schools; I’d like the National Careers Service and teachers to understand more about engineering. and stop steering girls away from it.

From an industry perspective, I’d like more publicity around the fantastic work done in the UK by engineering firms, and fewer assumptions about women’s status. For example, some firms assume women won’t want to relocate because of their husbands and partners, or won’t want to work outdoors, when this is not necessarily true.

I’d also like companies to commit to change so that they are welcoming to women. The biggest obstacle women report is their direct line manager blocking their promotion, and I’d like the industry to address this. Engineering firms can also provide mentoring (via WES’s MentorSET programme if needed) and championship – a lot of young men get championed by more senior engineers, and women need that too.

Prepare your workforce for women coming in by making it clear that women are just as capable as men, that sexist banter, harassment and behaviour will not be tolerated, and by encouraging the men to be open to suggestions. There are many ways to improve the workplace, and WES can support companies with suggested techniques. Make it as easy as possible for women to join, because most of them don’t want to be a trailblazer or role model – they just want to do their job.

Why is it so important for employers to improve female recruitment?

Women in engineering are very determined and talented, because they have had to fight to get in the door. For businesses, this means that hiring more women will only enhance your organisation.

Women have to come up with ingenious solutions because they don’t have the strength that men have. From this, we have innovative designs and products that also support men, such as wheeled suitcases and lifting equipment. This will also improve your company, because women are used to thinking around problems rather than meeting them head-on. WES can support firms to become more inclusive, change their recruitment practices and provide links to our member network of 2,000 women engineers.

Be aware that employing women will change your company culture, often for the better, but you will reap rewards in terms of more profit and a better service. Change may be painful, but in the end, everyone will benefit. Women like to think they are part of something bigger and more important than themselves, and pitching your work as supporting the greater good will encourage more women to join.

How can women succeed in the utilities sector?

Go for it! Utilities provide the basic infrastructure for living comfortably, so they are vital for society. Being able to say, “I help keep the lights on”, or “I’m part of the system that provides clean water and removes waste” is very aspirational and important.

Determination is key, because some women will give up if there are obstacles in their way. Be prepared to defend your expertise and know that your qualifications are likely to be better because you’ve not been waylaid into other careers. There will be other women around, but you may need to find them, so joining WES immediately gives you a network of other women engineers who can support you.

The work varies every day, the pay is good, the gender pay gap is 9-10% – half the pay gap for the UK as a whole (18%) – because there are many more men at senior levels. However, all things being equal, in terms of geography and job level, women are very likely to be paid the same as their male counterparts, because the gender pay gap at each level is around 1%.

Above all, the utilities sector needs women’s ingenuity to keep improving its services. WES is here to support you in your role, and you will find like-minded women engineers from many sectors among our members. Women engineers have a significant role to play in the sector in leading change and combating climate change.