Chartered civil engineer Rachel Skinner was named both the ‘Most Distinguished Winner’ and ‘Best Woman Civil Engineer’ at the European Women in Construction and Engineering Awards 2017. Rachel is due to become the youngest President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 2020, and also only the second woman ever to take on the role.

In parallel, Rachel paves the way for women in STEM as Head of WSP’s UK Development business. WSP is an engineering consultancy with over 7,800 people in the UK, supporting the planning, design and delivery of major infrastructure and property projects including The Shard, 22 Bishopsgate and Chelsea Football Stadium.

We met with Rachel recently for her view on what design means, and to understand what engineering is doing to break down barriers and promote real opportunities for all.

What does ‘design’ mean to you? Why do you feel design is important? What do you feel design can achieve?

Good design is the critical step that takes ideas with potential from the incubator and sets them on the path towards reality. Great design is able to bring new and exciting ideas to the table while aligning competing needs, demonstrating ways to navigate through the aesthetic, practical, technical, political and commercial aspects.

February 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, where some women over the age of 30 gained the right to vote for the first time – what does this anniversary mean to you?

It is sobering to realise how fast things have changed; to me, it is unthinkable that women would not have the same voting rights as men. Growing up it never occurred to me that my gender might limit what I could do – or be. It makes me look ahead and wonder what it is that our generation will change to support the generations to come.

Do you think there is genuine equality for men and women across engineering today? 

The evidence, taken at face value, suggests that we have a long way to go if we are to achieve a genuinely balanced industry across all indicators of equality and diversity. In my view, over the last ten years, we have developed a far better understanding of the challenge, and we have raised the profile of the issue, but now I think we would be well-served to focus on equality and balance for genuine business and commercial reasons, rather than for its own sake. Equality is not a women’s issue; it is an issue for everyone.

What does diversity mean to you?

To me, diversity means strength. In a business context, over the last decade and more we have seen clear evidence that organisations run by more diverse teams tend to make better decisions and generate greater returns and value. This applies at all levels and scales, from a small team working on a specific project to board level, and this is why it is worth pursuing. This is also the key to getting the right people on board, as it is much more difficult to pursue better diversity or balance without this wider commercial context.

Do you think that real ‘talent’ is being hindered from coming into engineering because of a need to fit a certain box, which includes a need to have a degree or formal qualification of some sort? What can we do to promote equality, diversity and inclusion in engineering?

My own route to engineering was not via an engineering degree, so I have strong feelings on this one!

I don’t think that qualifications are the primary issue affecting the attractiveness of the industry. Instead, I think our image and current lack of visibility is the key. We don’t see a balanced and diverse flow of people headed into engineering because they don’t know enough about what we really do – and that’s because we haven’t made those connections. It is ironic as engineering touches everything, everywhere and yet often it is taken for granted by the general public so is effectively invisible. In the absence of information about the creative, place-shaping and community-changing careers on offer, it is very difficult for parents, teachers or children to come close to considering engineering as a career path.

I find it really exciting to see that the Institution of Civil Engineers has recognised this as a key issue, and is now using its 200th anniversary year to broadcast a clear and simple message about how civil engineers directly transform all of our lives. With a brand new What is Civil Engineering? careers portal online, hundreds of local ICE200 events and competitions around the UK that are open to everyone, plus extensive national TV, press and exhibition coverage, we are consciously putting ourselves in the right place to address this challenge for the future.

On qualifications, there is good news. The key engineering institutions – including the Institution of Civil Engineers – have recognised this issue and have changed entry requirements to encourage anyone with the right competence and aptitude to progress, irrespective of prior academic qualifications.

To fix this for the long run, the action lies with those of us in the industry already, and I think there are two key things we can do differently. First, we need to recognise that there are plenty of people out there with the aptitude for engineering, in part because we need such a diverse range of skillsets – and you absolutely do not have to be expert in them all! Our first challenge is to connect with and spark the interest of those who might not have considered engineering until now and to create the right environment to encourage them to join the industry.

Second, we need to change the way we attract people and recruit. If we fish only in the engineering pools within universities and colleges, then we will continue to find the people who have already found us. If, however, we are brave enough to cast some lines into other academic departments – both arts and sciences – we will find people who have an incredible aptitude for what we do and who will stretch our boundaries for the future. How many of us look back at our own teenage years and realise that some of the choices we made were not representative of our full abilities. Today’s generation is exactly the same, and to me, this is the key to a more diverse and resilient industry of the future.

There have been high profile reports across the media recently of a gender pay gap across certain sectors and industries. Do you feel this is the case in engineering? And if so, what can we do to change that?

I am always careful to subdivide the issues into two parts: first, there is the issue about whether we have a gender-balanced workforce at all levels. We know that this is an issue and that a huge effort is being made to create a more diverse talent pool.

The second part of this is around gender-related pay parity and the question about whether people in equivalent roles are rewarded in similar ways. The evidence that I have seen suggests that where people are in genuinely comparable roles, our industry is quite good at ensuring that they receive a similar reward for their effort. This doesn’t generate newsworthy headlines but is an important part of our industry story.

If you were to start all over again, what would you tell your younger self when you started considering your career pathway?

I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, and when I was younger this used to worry me. Over the years I have learned to let that go, and not to spend time wondering about other paths I might have taken. I’ve also watched people with crystal-clear career plans take very different routes in real life. What matters most is that you love what you do, no matter what that is, as it is personal commitment, enthusiasm and passion that helps to set people apart.

You have achieved huge accolades in your career, however, has it been challenging to get where you are because of a male preconception of you as a person? Or has engineering got it right, and the industry promotes/recruits on talent and not the packaging the talent/gift arrives in?

This may sound like a very simplistic answer, but I have just always been me. I can’t think of any examples where I have felt that I have been held back – in fact, it is quite the opposite. The most important thing to me is that I want to be sure that I am moving forward on merit, as this is how it should be and the only way that I would want it.

If you could speak directly to ‘the next big thing’ in engineering, what you say to them to help them on their way to a successful career in engineering? 

Be yourself. Use your ideas, your energy and your enthusiasm every day; don’t worry about exactly where it will lead as you will never have a crystal ball. Build your personal and professional networks, and take opportunities when they come. Don’t seek out unnecessary attention but do speak up as appropriate. And have faith: good people will rise to the top.

What does the future of creative industries look like to you?

I spend a great deal of time thinking, writing and speaking at industry conferences on future-themed topics, in particular around mobility, place-making and more generally around being ‘future ready’. The transport sector is facing enormous change right now, much of which is driven externally. Electric vehicles, shared mobility, connected and driverless vehicles are a part of this picture – and new technologies will lead to similarly dramatic change in other sectors and markets too.

It’s natural that we feel uncertain about this on both professional and personal levels, not least because none of us can predict exactly this technological (r)evolution will lead, but history tells us that it is entirely possible to grow and thrive as a result of major change. This means that we must adapt, adopt and embrace these changes as opportunities for better places, communities and movement, rather than perceiving them as threatening. I am optimistic that we can get this right if we collaborate and consider the wider personal, political and economic drivers more carefully.

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