Encouraging women to consider the world of engineering

Posted: 22 June 2018 | | No comments yet

For International Women in Engineering Day, Sharon Duffy, Head of Transport Infrastructure Engineering at TfL, discusses the methods she has implemented to help attract women into engineering careers, and why…


Credit: TfL

For many people, 23 June has little significance. But for me, and an increasing number of others, it represents something very important. It is the International Day for Women in Engineering: one of the key milestones of the year. 

When celebrating International Women in Engineering Day, one of the most common questions asked is why do we need it? If women want to be treated as equals and not according to their gender, why is there a day especially for female engineers? Does that imply that somebody defined simply as an engineer must be male? These questions aren’t just being asked by men, but by women too. They’re valid questions, but their basis essentially questions the positive impact of International Women in Engineering Day. I argue against this assumption – by having a day celebrating female engineers and their achievements, we’re not undermining the efforts to achieve gender equality, we’re building on them.

Currently, there’s a lack of women in the engineering sector. According to Engineering UK in their State of Engineering report, only 12 per cent of those working in core and related engineering roles are women. Research also shows that at every age boys are far more likely than girls to consider a career in engineering. This is why International Women in Engineering Day is so important. It creates a vital catalyst to begin discussing the interesting careers available to women and why there are so few of us currently in the sector. It provides a great opportunity to highlight some of the women working in engineering as role models for young people, who might not otherwise know what an engineer is or what they do. Indeed, in the near future, I hope we will have reached a point when the engineering industry is gender-balanced, so that we won’t need a specific milestone. However, we have a way to go before then.

The problem is largely two-fold. There’s the issue of attraction and the issue of retention. There are a lot of myths surrounding what being an engineer consists of: you have to be a man, you have to wear hi-vis uniform, you have to work on site and get muddy, you can’t be creative. I’m not saying that you won’t ever be on site, but a lot of these myths are misconceptions. Some believe that because engineers are likely to have studied the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), they can’t be creative. This isn’t the case. Many engineers are actually very creative and can think laterally to solve problems. For example, if you are a design engineer, not only will you spend most of your time in an office, you may be delivering presentations and producing drawings and models of what you’re building. Overcoming problems and obstacles requires a lot of creativity.

This is why we have a huge range of activities at TfL to break down the stereotypes surrounding the industry. It’s vital that we are able to inspire both young people and groups that are typically underrepresented in the profession, so that they don’t write-off being an engineer without having fully understood what it can involve. On this International Women in Engineering Day I will be attending our Inspire Engineering Day with girls in school Year 9, which enables them to experience how our engineers use STEM to help keep London moving. Delivered by the London Transport Museum and our STEM Ambassadors, supported by industry sponsors, it is a combined effort that will change things in the long term. In addition to our STEM ambassador programme, through which TfL’s current engineers go out to schools and engage with students about the industry, we run a school’s competition – ‘Innovate TfL’ in association with Cleshar – to highlight what working in transport really means. It challenges young people in groups to creatively solve the different issues facing TfL, such as increasing population and air pollution. This not only teaches them how typical organisations like ours work, with each student taking on a different role, but they learn how what is taught at school is used in real life. Some of the past ideas have included buses with special cameras and screens to help improve road safety and Tube seats that use the dynamic forces of people sitting on them to power air cooling systems. The finalists receive work experience at TfL as part of their prize.

We also offer a variety of apprenticeships to those hoping to take their first step into the transport industry. They are structured so that the apprentices are able to study for qualifications while gaining hands-on experience in the workplace. For many, this is an amazing opportunity because it takes away the fear of not knowing everything about the job. We’re not looking for our apprentices to be experts, we’re looking for potential. We want to see our apprentices passionate about taking on a new challenge and demonstrating the right behaviours that we value at TfL: a willingness to learn and make a difference to life in the capital. Whether it’s through design and development engineering or building surveying, we know that women can bring something special to our teams, a different perspective and that we need a greater representation of women in engineering. There are different types of engineering apprenticeships on offer and in some disciplines, such as civil engineering, they are able to study for a degree as part of their scheme. Despite what some seem to think, apprenticeships don’t mean forfeiting a university education. They supply a chance to earn while they learn. Without the need to rely on financial support means the roles are accessible to anyone regardless of their socio-economic background.

However, while these initiatives are great at attracting people into engineering, especially those who are underrepresented, we also need to support the talent that we already have in the organisation. That’s why, along with some colleagues, I set up the Females in Transport Engineering group (FiTE) at TfL. I was involved in the celebrations for International Women in Engineering Day in 2017, which were organised by our Women’s Staff Network Group, and I realised that there was no forum specifically for female engineers to meet each other, network and share experiences. Given that many female engineers will work in male-dominated teams (in some instances, they may be the only woman), it seemed like an easy and vital step to take. Everyone, however, who is interested in supporting the aims of FiTE is welcome at our meetings.

As an Engineering Leader, I aim to create an inclusive environment where all people feel supported, realise the importance of constant learning, feel comfortable to maximise their potential and develop new skills. Sometimes women are less confident in applying for a promotional opportunity as they think they need to meet all of the required job description requirements, whereas men in the same or similar position are more likely to apply. FiTE is one of the many ways that employees are able to develop their network and seek support. By meeting with colleagues, who may be in other parts of the business, it provides employees the opportunity to discuss creative ideas they have had success with or obstacles they have had to overcome. Not only does this enable the professional development of the engineers themselves, it allows them to utilise learnings from other projects to improve their own, which clearly benefits the organisation too.

The group also enables us to celebrate others that have done well in the field. It is often said that women, in comparison to men, tend to hide their lights under a bushel when they should instead be shouting about their contributions. In 2015, I was very fortunate to be nominated for the European Women in Construction and Engineering awards in the category of  ‘Best Woman Electrical and Mechanical Engineer’, which I won. The judging day was really inspirational, there were series of debates and presentations and I realised the importance of being able to highlight your own accolades. Other TfL colleagues have been finalists too and some had success in the subsequent years. While the award didn’t change what I had achieved, it broadcast the achievements to those who weren’t aware of them. FiTE helps its members build their profiles by offering them the chance to network and make contacts with people that they might not have access to on a day-to-day basis. It also promotes the opportunities, such as the different awards engineers can be nominated for, that can bolster the profiles of successful colleagues.

Essentially, FiTE enables female engineers across TfL to collaborate with each other. International Women in Engineering Day gives us a banner under which we can all stand to increase diversity and promote gender equality within the industry. For any organisation to get the best solutions, they need to get a wide range of people with the best potential, as this encourages creativity and innovation. The call for increased diversity, along with International Women in Engineering Day, isn’t about promoting one gender or demographic over another – it’s about making sure that everybody has equal access to the opportunities the engineering profession offers, so that we can all benefit from the results.



Credit: TfL

Sharon Duffy is the Head of Transport Infrastructure Engineering at Transport for London (TfL). Duffy studied Mechanical Engineering at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and since graduation has worked for 24 years within several major organisations in the transport, manufacturing and building services sectors. For the last 14 years, she has been working within the London transport sector and is the professional lead and technical authority within the TfL Engineering Transport Infrastructure Engineering function, responsible for setting the strategic direction, driving best practice, innovation and value for the Engineering directorate and wider TfL. She leads a multidisciplinary team of professionals and is required to actively manage and control risks to the TfL business in relation to the safety, reliability and integrity of operational assets. Duffy’s team is responsible for the identification and promotion of best engineering techniques, technologies and systems to further business aims.