22 May 2014

Women engineers scale the heights

Roma Agrawal has scaled the heights. At the age of 29, she’s helped build the Shard, and last night she was garlanded as one of the few women climbing to the top of the engineering industry. Not bad for a woman who, when I met her this week, admitted she was scared of heights.

She had to conquer that fear during her six years working as a structural engineer on the 87-storey Shard project. But having done that, she’s now reaping the benefits, winning another gong last night for her efforts in a hugely male-dominated industry.

The Shard, Europe's Largest Building Is Unveiled After Completion Of It's Exterior

Agrawal, who came to the UK from Mumbai at the age of 16, is a brilliant role model as the government struggles to persuade girls and women to choose engineering as a career. Britain has a particular problem in this, with women accounting for fewer than 10 per cent of engineering professionals. That’s the lowest in Europe – embarrassingly low when you consider 30 per cent of engineers in Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus are women.

Those who do work in the sector here tell me it’s hard to make headway, and that sexism is a problem. None of that has held Agrawal back though. Her company, WSP, has more like 20 per cent women, and she’s clearly thrived there, not only designing the foundations and “spire” of the Shard, but also building bridges.

Of course, it was a group of women we have to thank for constructing the impressively elegant Waterloo bridge. During the war tens of thousands of women worked in the construction industry as bricklayers, labourers and joiners. They were paid less than the men, and knew they’d have to give up their jobs when the soldiers returned from war.

But when the bridge was ceremonially opened in December 1945, it was the men who were applauded by the Labour deputy prime minister, Lord Morrison, Peter Mandelson’s grandfather. The women were forgotten.

Fortunately, Britain’s latter-day female engineers are being recognised and encouraged. Agrawal has starred in the M&S Leading Ladies campaign – a canny move by the retailer, but also another way she can spread the word to other women that they too can build a stellar career like hers.

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15 reader comments

  1. kate says:

    Cathy, help me out here!

    Should I be chuffed that Roma Agrawal has “scaled the heights” in this field or upset that here in UK in the 21st century, she makes headline news on account of her gender’s rarity in the field?

    But yes! Let’s hear it for the girls! :)

    1. Andrew Dundas says:

      Of course women can make great engineers. My Niece has won an award for her work in encouraging women into IT development. Both my daughters have degrees and professional qualifications.

      However, our biggest transformational challenge is finding a way of motivating under-achievers from infant to teenage years. It is the main reason for many of our social and economic problems, especially amongst our most deprived areas.
      One of the reasons for this serious neglect is that our teachers are reluctant to get to grips with this very expensive problem, is that they’re mostly boys. Seventy percent of our teachers nowadays are women.

      Sexism cuts both ways. We injure ourselves by focusing our transformations in just one direction.

  2. Philip Edwards says:

    Cathy,

    More power to the girl’s elbow.

    But if were her I wouldn’t want my name attached to the high rise slum of the imagination that is The Shard. What a pity it wasn’t demolished by lightning strikes.

    There could be only one thing worse – that is being linked to the bankrupt Gherkin, an equally ugly Yankified pile of architectural garbage. Or the excreta of Canary Wharf.

    Good luck to all girls who want to progress in construction, that most misogynist of industries. However, I hope they manage to avoid involvement with other design atrocities. London has become the ugliest city in Europe and it won’t do their long term reputation any good to be linked to it.

  3. Mark Simmons says:

    “Britain has a particular problem in this, with women accounting for fewer than 10 per cent of engineering professionals. That’s the lowest in Europe – embarrassingly low when you consider 30 per cent of engineers in Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus are women”

    Why is this a problem? Presumably women are free to choose the careers that interest them and most are uninterested in these types of careers. It’s good that the small number who want to do it can but it’s no problem if most women choose not to. At the moment many universities offer favourable bursaries for girls who apply simply because they are female. Alas you can’t change human nature – even totalitarian states tried but it’s just not possible.

    “They were paid less than the men, and knew they’d have to give up their jobs when the soldiers returned from war.”

    You write this from the perspective of today and decades of distorting feminism. Most women in those days thought that it was a man’s duty to work, often dangerous jobs, to provide for the family. Indeed it was considered a deeply embarrassing and shocking thing for a man to be so incapable as to make his wife go to work, certainly in physical labour. I daresay nearly all, perhaps every single one, would have been only too happy to stop working as bricklayers and return to the far more important job of raising children. Today a woman can be a bricklayer but very few choose to do so.

    “Those who do work in the sector here tell me it’s hard to make headway, and that sexism is a problem”

    These are people who have very well paid jobs, far beyond the dreams of most people. Yet still cry “sexism” as they have been brainwashed since school to believe they must be victims. It is the same mentality that says we need more women in parliament. Margaret Thatcher proved a woman can do ANY job that she is capable of, there is no glass ceiling. But men and women are different, we now have scientific explanations of this related to darwinian evolutionary theory and men and women will gravitate towards different careers.

    Also just for the record, Bombay is the name of Bombay in English. “Mumbai” is the name in Marathi, in the 1990s there was a sectarian attempt to force muslims and south indian migrant workers to use the word “Mumbai” when speaking English pushed by the fascist Shiv Sena, but any literate English speaker knows the city’s correct name in English is Bombay, symbolic of religious pluralism and tolerance.

  4. Mike Walker says:

    Dear Ms Newman

    Your earlier piece on the news tonight regarding Roma Agrawal and her “building” The Shard spire is both inaccurate and unfounded. The spire was actually erected by Severfield Rowen Structures Ltd – now Severfield Watson – who also fabricated and erected all of the steelwork for the main structure as well. An impressive Engineering feat indeed!
    Ms Agrawal actaully had very little to do with the design apart from her involvement in the uppermost structure which is simple columns and beams – hardly challenging!

    Unfortunately you , along with many others , have fallen for the “Women in Engineering” publicity briefing without researching the full facts. One day a Structural Engineer with very limited actual experience of designing much at all, next the face of M&S and all over the papers everywhere.

    “The Emporer has no clothes” comes to mind.

    Regards

    Mike Walker

  5. Mark Simmons says:

    “Britain has a particular problem in this, with women accounting for fewer than 10 per cent of engineering professionals. That’s the lowest in Europe – embarrassingly low when you consider 30 per cent of engineers in Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus are women”

    Why is this a problem? Presumably women are free to choose the careers that interest them and most are uninterested in these types of careers. It’s good that the small number who want to do it can but it’s no problem if most women choose not to. At the moment many universities offer favourable bursaries for girls who apply simply because they are female. Alas you can’t change human nature – even totalitarian states tried but it’s just not possible.

    1. Andrew Dundas says:

      Hello Mark Simmons,
      It is unlawful for anyone to offer “favourable bursaries to girls…”. That would be a clear offence against the Equalities Act and its preceding Sex Discrimination Act. Those laws have prevailed for 39 years.
      If you have evidence of the offer of such favourable bursaries or selection criteria, I imagine you could let us know the details so that lawful complaints can be raised.

      The only organisations authorised by law to discriminate on grounds of gender are the registered political parties, the military and religious orders. Only they are exempt from the requirements of the Equalities Act.

      1. Andrew Dundas says:

        In the interests of fairness, I should add that a mistake in drafting the Lisbon Treaty (it was rushed through over ten years) has meant that women motorists are over-charged for their motor and other insurances.
        The drafting error is also one of the reasons for introducing “drawdown” pensions as a device for circumventing the requirement for all men & women to have the same annuity rates.

        So far as I’m aware, this radical change in insurance – that gender based risk are outlawed – is not “sexy” enough to warrant public discussion.

  6. Mark Simmons says:

    “They were paid less than the men, and knew they’d have to give up their jobs when the soldiers returned from war.”

    You write this from the perspective of today and decades of distorting feminism. Most women in those days thought that it was a man’s duty to work, often dangerous jobs, to provide for the family. Indeed it was considered a deeply embarrassing and shocking thing for a man to be so incapable as to make his wife go to work, certainly in physical labour. I daresay nearly all, perhaps every single one, would have been only too happy to stop working as bricklayers and return to the far more important job of raising children. Today a woman can be a bricklayer but very few choose to do so.

  7. Mark Simmons says:

    “Those who do work in the sector here tell me it’s hard to make headway, and that sexism is a problem”

    These are people who have very well paid jobs, far beyond the dreams of most people. Yet still cry “sexism” as they have been brainwashed since school to believe they must be victims. It is the same mentality that says we need more women in parliament. Margaret Thatcher proved a woman can do ANY job that she is capable of, there is no glass ceiling. But men and women are different, we now have scientific explanations of this related to darwinian evolutionary theory and men and women will gravitate towards different careers.

  8. Mark Simmons says:

    Also just for the record, Bombay is the name of Bombay in English. “Mumbai” is the name in Marathi, in the 1990s there was a sectarian attempt to force muslims and south indian migrant workers to use the word “Mumbai” when speaking English pushed by the fascist Shiv Sena, but any literate English speaker knows the city’s correct name in English is Bombay, symbolic of religious pluralism and tolerance.

  9. Sandi Dunn says:

    As a young single mum I did a two year woman only full time engineering technician course (OND) in 1980s. I did well, gained some distinctions and merits, even though I had no previous maths or sciences. I learned fast. My main point is that we were shown a film called Rosie the Riveter ww2, which blew me away re my previous preconceptions. Of course women can (and have done) do anything. But our British education system seems not to show role models to young women in school. Perhaps Channel 4 news could regularly show some films of women in engineering or interview women who go into engineering in other countries. I have met many women from Europe and Spain especially, who are fully qualified engineers – but met no British women except architects.

  10. Mark Simmons says:

    Ok, a few comments and questions, Cathy:

    “Britain has a particular problem in this, with women accounting for fewer than 10 per cent of engineering professionals. That’s the lowest in Europe – embarrassingly low when you consider 30 per cent of engineers in Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus are women”

    Why is this a problem? Presumably women are free to choose the careers that interest them and most are uninterested in these types of careers. It’s good that the small number who want to do it can but it’s no problem if most women choose not to. At the moment many universities offer favourable bursaries for girls who apply simply because they are female. Alas you can’t change human nature – even totalitarian states tried but it’s just not possible.

    “They were paid less than the men, and knew they’d have to give up their jobs when the soldiers returned from war.”

    You write this from the perspective of today and decades of distorting feminism. Most women in those days thought that it was a man’s duty to work, often dangerous jobs, to provide for the family. Indeed it was considered a deeply embarrassing and shocking thing for a man to be so incapable as to make his wife go to work, certainly in physical labour. I daresay nearly all, perhaps every single one, would have been only too happy to stop working as bricklayers and return to the far more important job of raising children. Today a woman can be a bricklayer but very few choose to do so.

    “Those who do work in the sector here tell me it’s hard to make headway, and that sexism is a problem”

    These are people who have very well paid jobs, far beyond the dreams of most people. Yet still cry “sexism” as they have been brainwashed since school to believe they must be victims. It is the same mentality that says we need more women in parliament. Margaret Thatcher proved a woman can do ANY job that she is capable of, there is no glass ceiling. But men and women are different, we now have scientific explanations of this related to darwinian evolutionary theory and men and women will gravitate towards different careers.

    Also just for the record, Bombay is the name of Bombay in English. “Mumbai” is the name in Marathi, in the 1990s there was a sectarian attempt to force muslims and south indian migrant workers to use the word “Mumbai” when speaking English pushed by the fascist Shiv Sena, but any literate English speaker knows the city’s correct name in English is Bombay, symbolic of religious pluralism and tolerance.

  11. Philip Edwards says:

    Cathy,

    That was some bun fight you started there.

    Tsk tsk.

    Bloody funny, though. Keep up the good work.
    :-)

  12. Kate says:

    Yes, tho a touch of déjà vu reading Mark’s!

Comments are closed.