Sandi Rhys Jones

Interview: Sandi Rhys Jones Engineering UK

Sandi Rhys Jones is the vice chair of the Governing Body of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, Construction and Technology. She has strong views on why there’s more to the gender debate than merely the ‘pipeline’ issue. It all starts, she says, with careers advice.

“I managed to find a career in engineering by luck and opportunity,” says Sandi Rhys Jones. We’re talking about women in engineering, and she’s answering the question about how, at a time when the industry was so dominated by men, she managed to make such a lasting impact on the discipline. “Engineering was seen in those days as rather difficult for women. And I was being channelled during my education inexorably towards the arts and humanities.”

That may have been back in the 1970s, but this channelling still bothers Rhys Jones. “There was this idea that engineering had something to do with the masculine side of the brain. There was also a huge lack of knowledge and experience in the careers advisors in school at the time. There still is.”

As if to prove the point, Rhys Jones shows me the recently published Engineering UK 2013 ‘State of Engineering’ report that was presented at Downing Street in December 2012. She’s a director on the board of Engineering UK, and she tells me that one of the findings is that there is a lack of understanding of what engineering is in the 21st century. “I find this quite chilling. Did you know that 21 per cent of teachers in STEM subjects discourage their pupils from going into engineering? This means one-fifth of the people teaching the subjects that are essential to the future of engineering in this country have no faith in the application of what they are doing.”

It was exactly this attitude that Rhys Jones was attempting to challenge when she was in school. “One of the reasons I’ve been active for a very long time - and feel so strongly about the importance of good careers advice, particularly to girls - is even when there is an awareness about the fascination of engineering it’s pretty tough to find out about the options available.”

Rhys Jones’s position on women in engineering is disarmingly straightforward. She believes that the industry sector’s performance will improve if more women are involved and she has campaigned long and hard to bring about changes that could attract and retain them. Her CV spans four decades of consultation and directorships within the engineering and construction sector, and she has picked up an OBE for her work along the way. She has sat on countless advisory boards and committees and has been a non-executive director of Docklands Light Railway. As well as sitting on the board of Engineering UK, she is vice chair of the Governing Body of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, Construction and Technology. But above all, she is seen as a role model and an advocate for women in engineering.

Telling it as it is

Rhys Jones is fond of illustrating her points with anecdotes. She is critically aware of the statistics and issues surrounding the issues that prevent women from going into engineering. “But time after time when I talk to young women and ask them how they got into engineering, they will answer that someone in their family has told them about the opportunities.”

Even then, according to Rhys Jones, many of them have had to do the legwork for themselves. “It is an appalling indictment of the development of young people in this country that the careers advice available today doesn’t seem much better than it was for me back in the Middle Ages.”

Does this mean that there is active discrimination against women in the technical arena? “I don’t really like to focus on this issue,” she replies. “Of course, it has to be dealt with if it is there. But I prefer to focus on the ‘glass half-full’.”

To do this Rhys Jones tells me the story of her first ever job. “My father was an engineer and my brother became one. But engineering wasn’t on the radar for girls. But I thought, I’m clever; I do maths, science, Latin and so on. I thought that medicine might be an area for me. I applied for a summer job at Boots the chemist with the intention of working in the dispensing department. But when I got there, the HR person said that there had clearly been a mistake and I was put in the book department where I spent an entire summer. That’s what careers advice is like. And we really need to grip that.”

Leaky career pipeline

But when the glass is half empty there is the simple statement that the pipeline isn’t delivering representative numbers of women to serve on boards of engineering companies. And while Rhys Jones accepts that there is a generational churn, where the problem will be partially solved by the stratum of men currently in post making way for women when they retire, it is more complex. “The problem with the pipeline as it stands,” she says, “is that it’s leaky. And we have to address what is causing the leaks, rather than wait for the force of the flow to become so great that enough women will trickle through.”

This leakage is partially caused by headhunters and recruiters. Rhys Jones says that it’s easy for them to maintain the exterior appearance of commitment to getting the right people for the right job. “They tend to gather candidates from their usual pool. But if what you want is a challenging board that will push the envelope, you need to be prepared to fight to find the right candidate.” This may come down as much to the confidence of potential women candidates as it does to the immutability of the board room, leading to Rhys Jones’s observation that when women break through, they tend to be pioneering types. “They tend to come here from Canada, or Australia or America. They take the view that as they are already outsiders with nothing to lose, they might as well be outspoken and fight for the jobs they want.”

According to Rhys Jones, working at board level with organisations such as Engineering UK is highly rewarding, especially as she sees the organisation as a vehicle for bringing together industry institutions with a view to creating tomorrow’s engineers. “We know that at Engineering UK we can change the attitudes of young people. At the hopper end - the open end of the pipeline - we are having an effect that is measurable. And we have found that engineering is instrumental in rebalancing the economy.”

Having started on the road to changing the way youngsters think, the challenge is to “keep them going at school with engineering subjects. Get them to take something on that’s a bit tough. Make it inspirational and get them to university. Then you get them through university - especially the women - and you put them into work.”

So far so good, but according to Rhys Jones the following step in the process - “the receiving environment” - is critical. “I’m talking about what happens in the workplace, career progression and development. We have to keep an eye on this because otherwise the majority of women at the head of institutions are those that run their own businesses. There is a corporate world issue.” Which is where quotas come in.

Rhys Jones is absolutely certain that for the moment at least there has to be legislated affirmative action to get women into the board room: “This is how to get these visible women on to boards. We need this because women think differently. They will address how to harness technology positively, and how to deal with sustainability. It’s about getting women into this environment and then managing their progression to the top. Everybody benefits from that.”

Positive role models

Does Rhys Jones enjoy being a role model for aspiring women engineers? “Last week I gave a keynote speech at a conference for women engineering undergraduates. At the end, so many of them wanted to come up and talk to me. That’s fantastic. I’ve enjoyed my career in this sector and so to pass along advice is a pleasure. A real pleasure.”

She also thinks that if someone with her background can be a role model then that “is infinitely better than this current obsession that a role model has to be a celebrity. I feel very strongly about this. We don’t want celebrities. We want real people. And if I can work with engineers and deliver that message, and it works, and we can find a way of giving young women and teachers the confidence to say “we can do this” then we’ll be some way along the road to improving opportunities within the sector for them.”

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