Over and out – why do female engineers exit construction careers?

Kat Jackson’s concern at the fast departure rate of female engineers in the construction industry stems from personal experience. The Mott MacDonald technical director – advisory progressed fairly quickly in her career once she left construction.  

She started working for construction companies nearly twenty years ago but her experience within the sector predates her formal employment following graduation. Since the late 1990s, when she undertook work experience as a teenager, she has worked in engineering in numerous capacities. 

This journey, which offered much observation of “watching women come and go...often faster than they arrived”, has culminated in the recent completion of her thesis researching how women proceed in construction careers. 

Kat’s experience 

Upon completion of her engineering degree in 2006, Kat was the sole women in a group of ten graduates employed by Fulton Hogan in Australia. At this time, few women were joining the construction industry, and she watched how and when they left while also listening to the accompanying narrative.  

Interestingly, her observations did not match the common thought that women were leaving to have children. Her formal research was therefore timely as it allowed her to confidently state that the sector had incorrectly identified the problem. She’d also found having children was no barrier to staying in construction, which increased her motivation to find and address the real reasons women departed rather than making assumptions. 

Do many women enter engineering today? 

When Kat completed her engineering degree, about 15% of graduates were female. Today, that figure sits around 20% but has started to decrease slightly, which Kat says should raise questions. She also notes the number of women graduates entering construction has increased, but retention beyond a graduate level remains a challenge. 

Where do women go? 

One driver of her research was construction companies’ inability to state why so few women were employed at higher levels despite proclaiming they had 50% female graduates. This left her feeling uneasy given these young professional women are a great asset to a company. 

During her inquiries, she discovered that many women, when leaving their employment in construction, considered going into consulting or government organisations, rather than departing engineering completely or going to other construction companies. 

Kat says once you start asking women why they’re leaving the construction sector, there is a responsibility to listen and act. It takes courage and emotional maturity as an organisation to decide to investigate the issue and she believes it remains a low priority because relatively few women still enter the construction industry. 

Assumptions dismantled – what did the research show? 

While young women mentioned the long hours in construction, inhospitable worksites often a long way from town, and that 60-hour working weeks out of town might be difficult if they had children, this wasn’t necessarily their driver to leave because they left well before they planned to have children. 

Kat discovered women’s job expectations were almost immediately unmet upon commencing their role despite entering their employment with similar expectations to young men. These included that the work would be interesting with opportunities to work in interesting places, and they would incur great learning.  

It became clear that young men’s expectations were largely quickly met. For example, upon completing a year’s work, they would be assigned to an interesting project out of town if that was their desire. In comparison, young women found that, after a year, they might be offered the job of quality manager at a local site, effectively a sideways role from their aspirations. Kat says part of her research was therefore aimed at ensuring expectations were fairly met by women and men. 

Another finding was that young women quickly felt disengaged with their placement because they were unable to identify role models in the workplace and consequently were unable to see a future for themselves in the type of role they desired. Kat says this prevented them from predicting their own career path because the critical role modelling, which makes work meaningful, was lacking. This was even more apparent for women of colour and those even further removed from the typical engineering graduate – a white male. Meanwhile, young men quickly found a sense of belonging in the workplace.  

How do companies increase retention? 

Kat says companies must assess the accuracy of their assumptions to correctly identify the issues, and therefore direct money and effort into appropriate initiatives to affect change. 

Women are very good at recognising the reality of a workplace. When asked to highlight females occupying senior roles, she says companies often point to women on their leadership team, most of whom are in human resources, people-related or legal roles, who do not represent an engineering pathway. She says it is crucial companies critically analyse the pathways they promote for engineers by asking whether they are realistic and fair.  

Engagement in an honest and open way, without pre-determination, is also vital. This is achievable in numerous ways, including surveys and focus groups, but Kat says currently people feel unheard and that forums to share their thoughts are lacking. Simply asking people what matters to them and attempting to respond is a very important engagement tool. 

Promisingly, a genuine interest exists among young men and women to improve construction career pathways. Companies’ pride in having more female graduates also shows they want to do better. Kat says there is a desire to change the status quo, which creates opportunities to teach people how to engage. 

Kat believes individual firms need to be self-aware and decide that they value their employees’ opinions and needs. Her research shows people enjoy having their opinions heard. She says having employees who feel listened to and engaged could be the initial step, as actual solutions may vary depending on the company.  

Kat is also Mott MacDonald’s local inclusive network lead, which provides opportunities to speak with the company’s teams and senior leaders about affecting change. She says we can’t afford to have a retention crisis now that we have a reasonable number of female graduates. Companies need to acknowledge that what they are doing is not working and ask young graduates why this is the case and what support they need.  

The flipside of this is for companies to ask how they retain all their employees, not just women. It is crucial that people trust the method of engagement to make it meaningful, which may mean having closer connections between managers and employees, rather than a very broad, anonymous survey. Everyone benefits from having their opinions heard and, if done well, the positive outcome is almost certainly greater retention, comments Kat. 

She is keen to engage with companies interested in making improvements about how they can help each other do better. She has valuable grassroots knowledge to offer and would love to speak with more enthusiastic companies and their people to foster change. As Kat says, it is the decisions made behind boardroom doors that affect people’s career paths. 

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