Being a woman in ‘front-line’ construction

Caroline Nicholls Site Engineer
4 min read

Today marks International Women in Engineering Day, a day dedicated to encouraging more young women and girls to take up engineering careers.

In June 2021, Women’s Engineering Society (WES) figures showed that 16.5% of engineers are women. That figure is on the up, as in 2010 WES reported that only 10.5% of engineers were women, but we’ve still a long way to go before we approach 50/50 figures like Laing O’Rourke aim to do for its staff by 2033.

I am currently a site engineer working on the Tideway project, based at the Chelsea Embankment in London. My day-to-day covers a wide range of tasks and activities with responsibility to work with our workforce and make sure that we deliver to a high standard, and most importantly, that it is done safely. I also ensure that any materials and equipment are being used and installed correctly and by collaborating with the engineering and workforce teams, help solve any problems that arise.

As a child I always loved LEGO and in school I enjoyed maths. Civil engineering feels like a combination of both. I started my career with Laing O’Rourke through its summer and industrial placements, working on residential, healthcare and data centre projects. It was through the first summer placement, when I fell in love with construction.

Once I graduated from university, I joined the Laing O’Rourke Graduate Development Programme. This saw me step into a full-time role based on a construction site and while I didn’t face any significant challenges, my career choice was questioned by some people around me, including family and friends. Generally, they were questioning whether a role that was so heavily based on site was good for me, as they had never known of any women in such a ‘front line’ construction role. On my very first placement I had a delivery driver point to a tall glass office building and ask me, ‘Why do you not work there instead?’ I was resilient enough to brush these comments off, but they could have discouraged me from continuing along my path, and it's why it is important that women in the industry step up to tell their stories. If you can see her, you can be her!

Construction is still a male dominated industry, however it is great to work for a company that is looking to challenge and change that. I’ve seen an increase in women engineers working across sites, along with the introduction of larger and higher quality welfare facilities for us. As the workforce sees more women in site based roles, they also seem to be more accepting of us too.

However, with the percentage of women in engineering being so low, how can we address it and how can the industry move forward? I think we must challenge any assumption we come across that portrays the industry as a male environment. Construction sites are often portrayed as noisy and dusty – and inhabited almost exclusively by men. But modern methods of construction are changing that – and there are many examples of successful females in construction who are great role models for young women and girls looking to kickstart a career in engineering. We need to make these examples more visible and amplify their voices.

The construction industry is an exciting and dynamic place to work. It is sometimes challenging, but always rewarding. I love being an engineer – not everyone can say their job has had them working 60m above ground, 40m below ground and everywhere in between!