Women are woefully under-represented in engineering professions, but one of the industry’s leading trade bodies is bucking the trend and practicing what it preaches about the need for greater gender equality and opportunity.
The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) represents more than 1,000 specialist engineering companies with a combined turnover of around £4 billion. Its members provide design, installation, commissioning, maintenance, control and management of engineering systems and services in buildings, with a particular focus on heating, cooling, and ventilation.
Employers in these sectors are struggling with an ageing workforce and a long-standing lack of diversity that hampers their ability to recruit the talent they need to address a growing skills gap. However, BESA has women in most of its senior management positions, which is helping it to promote positive change across the industry.
Its commercial, finance, marketing, training, and legal directors are all female. Its director of certification, which plays a crucial role in the development of professional and technical standards for the building services sector, is also a woman.
On International Women’s Day, the Association is using its gender balanced approach to recruitment and promotion to send a strong message to the industry it represents – and to the wider engineering community. Its gender profile is very much in line with this year’s IWD theme: #Break the Bias – challenging inequality in the workplace.
“Thousands of words have been written about the barriers to gender equality, but it is only through concrete action that real change can happen,” said Kirsty Cogan, BESA’s managing director of commercial services.
“For engineering, which is suffering from a growing skills shortage, to be, in effect, recruiting from just half of the available workforce seems crazy,” she added. “There are amazing career opportunities for women and girls in our industry, but gender stereotypes still hold sway and, as a result, our businesses are missing out.
“At BESA, we have women in most of our leadership positions and working throughout our organisation. While we recognise that these roles are not ‘pure’ engineering, our gender balance does allow us to influence the diversity discussion across the sector and set an example to our members.”
Legal and commercial director Debbie Petford pointed out that most of the barriers that might have prevented or discouraged women from entering engineering professions were coming down.
“The adoption of modern methods of working and the emergence of Big Data and digital design techniques, along with the rapid advancement of building services technology, mean the sector desperately needs more talented young people with new skills and from a much wider background.
“And it is these same advances that are also making it easier for women to gain access to technical and leadership roles right across the UK economy – our industry needs to build on that,” she said.
It takes strong, positive action to reverse decades of unintended gender bias and providing positive role models is a great way of inspiring a new generation, according to BESA.
“Women like to work in professions where they can make a difference, so we need to promote the amazing opportunities in engineering to ‘shape the world’ i.e. through sustainability; the climate emergency and addressing social inequalities,” said director of certification Rachel Davidson, who has been employed by BESA for 30 years.
Just over 12% of all UK engineers are women, according to the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). However, that figure falls to 9.7% for those employed in ‘traditional’ engineering like the building services, mechanical and civil sectors.
“We need to be better at celebrating the achievements of women in engineering rather than continually complaining about the barriers they face,” said BESA’s group finance director Skye Hardy.
“Although my role is a commercial one, I have found it hugely rewarding to work in a technical sector. I have come across lots of high achieving and senior women who love their roles and are rightly proud of what they and their companies are achieving. We just need more of them and to get better at promoting them as role models to young women looking for rewarding careers,” she added.
The pandemic has fundamentally changed working conditions for people in all sectors and this, alongside the explosion in digital working and learning platforms, should make it even more attractive for women to go into engineering professions in the future.
“The numbers of women in building engineering are too low, but at least they are moving in the right direction,” said BESA’s marketing and communications director Clare Watson. “We are a female led organisation in a male dominated industry, which is allowing us to push boundaries and promote change.
“Most of our members are very open to that change because they see the commercial benefits as well as recognising that they have a social responsibility to be more diverse.”
The rapidly growing skills shortage in all engineering professions means change is inevitable, according to the Association’s director of training and skills Helen Yeulet.
“Building engineering firms will not survive if they keep trying to go back to the narrow and almost exhausted pool of talent they have relied on in the past,” she said. “Our industry does not properly reflect the society it serves because it is not diverse enough by a range of measures including gender, ethnic, and disability.
“Change is happening, but too slowly. Companies face a barrage of challenges in the coming years, including the push for net zero carbon, that require new and far more diverse skills – and a fresh approach to recruitment, which BESA is helping its members and the wider industry to develop.”
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