For over a century, International Women’s Day (IWD) has been celebrated every year on 8th March. The first IWD gathering in 1911 was supported by over a million people and it has grown year on year, applauding the social, economic and political achievements of women and marking a continuing call to action for accelerating gender equality. This year’s theme is Each for Equal, highlighting the message that “an equal world is an enabled world”. One area of focus within this theme is creating inclusive workplaces where women can thrive. Nowhere is this drive more important than within the construction industry.
In 2019, it was estimated that a mere 11% of jobs within STEM industries in the UK are held by women. Although the numbers of women working within construction and engineering are slightly higher, and are undeniably growing, they still only make up around 20% of the workforce. Aside from being an untapped resource that could help to fill the chronic skills shortage, women have much to offer in the sectors that grow our built environment.
From designing grand houses and churches to influencing significant changes to social and urban housing, women have been instrumental in construction for hundreds of years, their dedication and innovation often going unrecognised. Fortunately, the tides are turning, with a wider breadth of STEM-related roles now becoming more accessible to women.
We caught up with Karen Connolly, one of our dedicated R&D Project Engineers, to find out about her experiences of working in the industry.
Karen Connolly – R&D Project Engineer
What was your career path into your current role and what inspired you to go for it?
I always knew from an early age that I wanted to do something practical which involved design and problem solving as a career. In school, my strongest subjects were maths and technology, which lend themselves nicely to a career in Engineering.
After graduating I took up a role as a solar PV Design Engineer for Kingspan based out of Holywell in North Wales. The transition from studying full-time to working in the real world was very fluid for me. I completed my Masters degree in Energy & Building Services Engineering and my thesis focused on solar generation which meant I had a good knowledge of both solar photovoltaic and thermal.
My role at the time involved designing solar PV installation for commercial rooftop applications across Ireland, the UK and mainland Europe. I worked very closely with several different teams, both internally and externally, in order to meet the client’s expectations for the project. Each project was bespoke, which meant that no two working days were the same, the job often involved quick thinking and problem-solving skills if issues were to arise
Following on from this I took up my current position as an R&D Project Engineer. This role is similar to my previous position but focuses more on the development and certification testing of individual products. Working in R&D has enabled me to gain a lot of experience in project management– a very transferable skill.
How has the position of women changed within construction over your time in the industry?
Over time, the role of women in society has changed and that includes the construction industry. I have been fortunate enough to never experience any gender-based discrimination and I have always been treated the same as my male colleagues.
What advantages would gender equality bring to the industry?
Having a more balanced gender mix at all levels would encourage more women to choose a career in the construction industry. The traditional perception of engineering-based roles being male occupied has changed over the past decade or more, but there is still a noticeable gender divide as you progress through the career ladder.
There are loads of advantages of having a balanced gender workforce, including different thinking perspectives, broader talent pool, better retention of staff and happier employees.
What advice would you give to a woman looking to start a career in your industry?
The advice I would give to any young woman starting out in their career in the construction industry would be: “be ambitious and driven”. A career in any industry requires dedication and hard work in order to be successful. I have found that respect is earned, whether you’re male or female, from the level of effort applied and the willingness to be adaptable in certain situations.
Nothing is impossible if you are willing to work for it.
Who inspires you?
Katie Taylor, the Irish professional boxer.