Sally Walters

Civil Engineering needs to sell itself better to women, and particularly to girls at school and mums returning to work. That’s the view of one woman who benefited from the WISE campaign before her career started.

“My dad was a civil engineering lecturer, so I knew about engineering, but I thought it sounded boring when I was young,” explains Sally, now a Principal Engineer based at Pell Frischmann’s Exeter Office. “My school was an all-girl school, and there was no one there to challenge my perception until WISE ran a workshop when I was 17. That led to me visiting Birmingham University for a week where I was given an insight into different types of engineering and it how important and fascinating it could be.

“It is a shame that engineering is still hugely undersold at school, and especially to girls. Too many are unaware of the extent of engineering, and unaware that engineering is a combination of science, maths, art, and creativity.”

So once the decision was made, what were the challenges ahead?

“University was actually fine. There was very little cultural aversion to a woman studying engineering at all, which was good news. But once I had my degree, I went into site engineering and that was different. There were very few women on site, and there were some foremen who really struggled to know how to deal with a woman in their environment. Some tried to be helpful but didn’t know how best to do it, while others were a bit resentful of the change. I was even warned to be careful because some of the guys had been to prison.”

In consultancy engineering, however, the challenge is different to that.

“We don’t have that sort of problem in consultancy engineering. The attitude towards women is much better, but it isn’t perfect everywhere. Along with getting girls to want to be engineers, we really need more women to come back to engineering after career breaks. Pell Frischmann has been great at this, and there is a real culture of flexibility, which is crucial if we want more mums to return to the profession while raising their children.

“It isn’t the same everywhere though. Most companies care about this, but maybe some don’t do enough to act on it. We have a number of women in senior roles at Pell Frischmann, but we do notice fewer in some partner companies. Perhaps this is because fewer women feel able to return to their career and progress at those companies, or just because the flexibility that is there hasn’t been promoted enough. Either way, it has to feel important that after a career break, women would be wanted back by civil engineering as a whole.”

So what does success look like?

“I’m working on the Plymouth bathing waters programme at the moment. It is a multi-million pound improvement project to ensure the treatment works and combined sewer overflows around Plymouth operate properly and ensure the local bathing waters are suitable for the public to swim in. After two years of progress, we are about to reach detailed design and construction and it is an interesting time! I am working with several women in senior roles across this project; success will be when that no longer seems surprising to people, because it has become perfectly normal.”