Woman in a man's working world

09-11-2004

Engineer Julia Tolworth was advised to go into hairdressing at school as engineering was not considered a job for a girl.

But civil engineering had always been a dream job for the 28-year-old and she ignored her careers teacher's advice and pursued her ambition.

She recalls: "I thought you could change the world. I wanted to build a dam and fly over it in a helicopter so I would know I had achieved something with my life."

She has progressed well in her chosen field, but is now making a move away from a hands-on role because she feels being a woman will hold her back.

Julia, who is married and works for a company in Birmingham, is now a senior civil engineer, but the route there has left a faintly bitter taste.

She says: "I was seconded to another company for a project and they wanted to keep me. My current company only promoted me so I wouldn't leave, which was painful. I didn't want to play that game.

"I do think it's harder for women to get on in engineering. I used to think it made no difference but I've changed my mind.

"One of my colleagues became pregnant and was told by her boss it was a shame because he had been wanting to promote her. She complained and was promoted but it was a struggle."

Julia is thinking of beginning a family and is moving companies to work in a business improvement team for an engineering consultancy.

Self-promotion

"The job will entail helping others to be better engineers, I won't be hands-on anymore," she says.

"I told the company at the interview of my plans for a family and they were very positive."

Julia believes a lot of discrimination is sub-conscious and about the difference in the way men and women work.

She says: "The women work in a team and want to get the job done and be rewarded for that. Men often work alone and self-promote more.

"A lot of it is to do with self-confidence, which begins early on. Even though boys often fare worse academically than girls, their achievements are somehow thought more of.

Plateau stage

"My sister is in the third year of a structural engineering degree. The top six in the exams were all women and yet the women found it much harder to get summer work placements."

Julia also believes women reach a plateau as they get to child-bearing age.

She says: "Even if they don't actually have children, people think they will, so they get stuck and eventually leave to do something different."

Julia believes one solution is to value management as a skill at a high level.

"What often happens is that a man makes a lot of money on a project so he is promoted and it is assumed he will be good at management, when that might not be the case."

Her tip for women who want to get ahead is to get themselves a good mentor.

Show me how

She says: "I have had mentors who have really pushed me. They haven't been formal arrangements, just something I have done personally. A lot of senior men are pleased to do it.

"It's just a matter of finding five minutes for a coffee and saying: 'Everyone at the company says you are really good at winning work. Can you show me how?'

"I don't think legislation is the way forward. Who would employ you again? What does need changing is this sub-conscious prejudice against women of childbearing age.

"I had an unplanned pregnancy a couple of years ago and comments came back to me about it being bad timing. I then had a miscarriage at three months and found it difficult to talk to my male colleagues.

"Engineering has such a macho image, but if you look at the top senior management they are quite emotional people.

"If you are going to earn �200,000 you need to inspire people to follow you and for that you need to be emotional. There is no reason women can't be in those positions."

BBC News

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