Closing the gender gap in tunneling Mar 2015

Mai Nguyen, Civil Engineer, London Bridge Associates
Tunnelling is a man’s world, or so goes the stereotype and the statistics. There are though a growing number of women challenging the norm and making their mark in the world of underground development as skilled, well-educated and talented civil engineers. Mai Nguyen, originally from Vietnam and now working for a tunnel engineering firm in the UK, after earning a Degree in Civil Engineering in Australia and a Master Degree of Construction Management in the UK, shares her experiences of forging a career as a woman in tunnelling.

In today’s knowledge economy, there is an increasing number of women who want a career in a challenging and dynamic business, especially within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. It has become clear that gender should not be a criterion for career success.

Underground was an attraction
Underground was an attraction

At the same time, the UK is facing an increasing demand for engineering skills, partly driven by the rising level of planned infrastructure projects including Crossrail, High Speed 2 and Thames Tideway. There is a need to double the number of recruits into engineering to meet the estimated one million job demands by 2020, as reported by EngineeringUKmagazine.

However, the unwelcome fact is that, only 5.5% of engineering professionals in the UK are women, according to industry statistics for 2012 (Fig 1). This is a decrease of 1.4% from a high recorded in 2008 of 6.9%, and is the lowest gender representation of any European country. The most extreme gender segregation is in the Skilled Construction category, which includes underground construction, where only 0.4% are female (Fig 1).

Being surrounded at work or on a construction site by men all day and every day - without any female colleagues in sight - could be a terrible thought for some women, but for us, women in tunnelling, it is just normal. Working in the tunnelling engineering office might be slightly different but still, the number of women around could be counted on one hand.

It is true that tunnelling work is tough. Constructing a tunnel is one of the most complex challenges in the field of civil engineering. Many tunnels are considered technological masterpieces and governments across the world have honoured tunnel engineers as heroes. Apart from the obvious complicated technical aspects, many tunnelling sites operate on a 24-hour-7-day-week basis. Tunnel engineers and tunnelling staff are required to work up to 12 hours a day and to be on site even under severe weather conditions. Together with a lack of industry exposure, these are some of the reasons that put many women off considering a career in the field. As a result, there is a significant gender gap in the tunnelling workforce, with fewer women hired than men at all levels, according to registered statistics.

Fig 1. Females and males in UK STEM Minor Occupation Groups 2012 (%)
Fig 1. Females and males in UK STEM Minor Occupation Groups 2012 (%) Source: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: from Classroom to Boardroom - UK Statistics 2012 & Labour Force Survey, April – June 2012. Notes: Males aged 16-64 and females aged 16-59.

When I first started working for London Bridge Associates Ltd (LBA), the engineering firm specialising in tunnelling and underground construction, I was one of only two female engineers in the company. Some might think it is difficult for a woman to work in a male dominated environment and that there are many disadvantages. However, it has never been a problem for me. In fact, working in engineering, especially in tunnelling, is addictive! It gives me a sense of true achievement.

With more than 10 years’ experience working in engineering, I have come to the conclusion that while extensive experience and highly developed technical skills are crucial to your professional success, it is important that you also need great soft skills, commonly known as people skills. Personally, I feel that women may have better potential and ability to develop these skills.

My very first tunneling site experience was on the M25 Holmesdale highway tunnel refurbishment project back in 2005/2006. Apart from all of the significant technical lessons I learnt, this was the place where I had a chance to understand why people skills were so vital to one’s success.

Women bring potential for better people skills to the workplace
Women bring potential for better people skills to the workplace

Working inside the tunnel for 12 hours a day and managing 12 different subcontractors throughout the course of the project was probably the best experience in my career to date. This whole experience has taught me not only invaluable professional skills but also the ability to relate to others, to be patient with others and most importantly, the ability to trust others. I have learned to develop my communication skills with different types of people, to know how and when to show empathy and to develop my listening skills. I came to realise that because my technical skills were limited, it was very difficult to convince the guys on site to listen to a girl who had just graduated from university.

So I did it differently - by offering the guys, working under the 37oC heat of summer, bottles of cold drinks; by sitting down with them at break time listening to them talking about their lives and their families with genuine interest; by taking their minds off the long hard working day for a while with some good humour or by remembering to say “thank you” to all of them at the end of the day. This was actually more powerful than I could ever have imagined. In return, they accepted my instructions readily and the productivity as well as the quality of works rose significantly. With everyone’s great effort, the refurbished Holmesdale Tunnel re-opened to the public 12 weeks ahead of schedule.

In 2012, I became the first chairwoman of the School and Universities Group of the British Tunnelling Society for Young Members (BTSYM). Together with many young engineers, including myself, we have visited schools across the UK promoting tunnelling as an exciting career and to educate young people from the age of 14 with tunnel design and construction introductory lessons. These lessons have attracted the interest of many young girls. Since then, this great initiative by the BTSYM has been continuing with a new chairperson and new committee members every year.

Underground construction does not have to be male exclusive
Underground construction does not have to be male exclusive

I feel privileged to be seen as a role model and to be invited as a guest speaker at several talks including the Soroptimist International Programme Education: Science for girls where I had a chance to share with many young girls and business women my own stories about the exciting tunnelling projects I have been involved in, and why girls should consider becoming an engineer. At the “First Women in Engineering” Award interview where I was one of the final six, I described to the judging panel the challenges of working in a male dominated industry while managing my busy family life with two children, how I overcame the challenges by doing things differently from the established norms and what I have done to remove the barriers and open up opportunities for the young, especially for girls.

There is a lot of work still to be done to attract more women into tunneling. We need to see a greater deal of flexibility from employers to facilitate the issue of childcare and family. At the same time, employees should be encouraged to discuss openly and honestly with their employer the subjects of working overtime and the decision to have a family without fear of career disruption and work life balance.

I hope my message can reach any girl who is considering a career in tunneling, that it does not matter what gender you are if you want to excel at work. Any obstacles you think might face a woman in tunneling will disappear when you work in the sector.

In recent years, the number of females in engineering has grown significantly. Taking the HS2 high speed railway project in the UK as an example, there are two female executives on the board and more than half of the 62 people on the senior management development programme are woman. With major infrastructure projects like HS2 in development, we have a real opportunity to shape a different and better future by improving gender diversity throughout the engineering and construction industries.

As with our tunnelling industry in particular, we need to encourage our women to develop their potential to the maximum. We have done great so far. Let us work towards a future that is bright for women in tunnelling!


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