The changing tide for women in engineering
LEADING independent property, construction and infrastructure consultancy Pick Everard marked this year’s International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) with the release of a special podcast, interviewing civil engineer Natalie Clemson about her journey from sandwich year placement to national director at the firm.
This year’s INWED theme is ‘Engineering Heroes’, and during the podcast Natalie spoke about her personal inspirations – including the professors during her university studies. She emphasised the importance of having passionate role models in the industry to inspire people to achieve their best, and heavily credits her teachers for instilling this passion in her.
Having always had a passion for maths, science and art, Natalie developed an interest in engineering while searching for a degree that matched her interests. She said: “I wanted a degree that combined my interests, but that I could come out of and pursue a career. My careers advisor initially suggested architecture, but I began researching engineering because I enjoyed the maths side of my studies more.
“Ultimately, civil engineering was what caught my eye because of the breadth of opportunity – allowing you to specialise in a wide range of areas. I ended up studying a joint civil and architectural engineering degree at the University of Bath, which really set me up for a great career through the teaching and work placements required as part of the course.”
After her graduation, Natalie returned to Pick Everard full-time in 2008, first working within the water team, which saw her working on schemes like reservoirs and water treatment plants. This was followed by her Chartership, and an 18-month stint in the bid team to gain more commercial experience. In 2014, she joined the highways and infrastructure team, achieving several promotions to take her from senior engineer to national director.
When examining key statistics around female students’ engagement with engineering as a viable career route, the podcast saw Natalie discussing the drop off seen in girls considering engineering as an option as they get older. 46.4% of girls between the ages of 11 and 14 cite it as a credible career option, which drops to 25.4% in 16- to 18-year-olds.
Natalie, who is also a STEM ambassador, said: “It’s really hard to say exactly what causes that drop off as students get a bit older, but there will certainly be many things at play. There is definitely an important role that society as a whole must play in breaking down stereotypes from an early age in order to remove any remaining stigma.
“There also needs to be a change in the way that the media portrays typically male and female roles, as this tends to further perpetuate many stereotypes. But ultimately, we need to keep the momentum of what we are already doing – providing positive role models, mentorships, work experience and support for anyone who wants to pursue a role in engineering, no matter their background.
“Luckily, there has been a step-change in attitudes towards women within the industry itself – for example it’s much easier to get hold of women’s PPE than when I first started working on site, and sexism in the workplace has greatly reduced. The pandemic, home working and the current move to hybrid working is also helping to breakdown those more ‘traditional’ attitudes to family life and I think everyone – men included – is benefitting from this. We just need to make sure that when the pandemic is a memory, we keep a truly flexible approach to working to support everyone in a successful career.”
Elizabeth Hardwick-Smith, group people and culture director at Pick Everard, hosted the special edition of the podcast. She said: “Natalie is a really inspiring role model for anyone looking at pursuing a role in engineering, no matter their background. She joined us in 2006 on a work placement as part of her studies and has worked on some of our biggest and most prominent schemes as she has risen through the ranks to become a national director.
“With only around 12% of all UK engineer being female, it was a real pleasure to speak with Natalie about her experiences, and how we can collectively tackle the gender imbalance within the sector.”
Sharing a final piece of advice, Natalie rounded of the podcast by saying: “Engineering is a fantastic career choice for anyone, no matter what their background or stage of life is. There is so much diversity within the field, allowing you to specialise in all sorts of different branches of engineering from structural and mechanical through to power, marine and coastal – it’s just about finding what you like the most. Look into it, and don’t be afraid to take the leap.”