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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