In engineering we use statistics as a tool to organise, analyse and interpret data. Statistics can help us identify gaps and issues and can be used as a benchmark to work towards change. A statistic we hear often in the heat network industry is that in order for the UK to meet its decarbonisation targets, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has estimated that heat networks need to grow from serving 2% of heat demand to 18% by 2050. However, as identified within the BEIS Heat Network Skills Review, the lack of skills within the heat network sector is a major barrier to achieving this growth.

In order to facilitate the predicted growth, the industry needs to attract a skilled and diverse workforce within the coming decades. No statistics are available for the heat network sector, but statistics on the wider engineering sector identifies that the industry is 88% dominated by males. Therefore, in order to bridge the skills gap successfully, it will be crucial to open up the industry to women.

Unfortunately, the solution is not that simple. As female engineers, we often experience an unaccommodating environment, whether this be lack of female facilities on construction sites, disrespectful attitudes, or harassment. It is clear that to be able to attract women into the industry, we need to create a supportive and welcoming environment. The industry needs to use this opportunity to promote change, as not only will this allow the opportunity to recruit from twice as many people, but a more diverse workforce has benefits for everyone!

How does a diverse workforce benefit everyone?

Research shows that there is a compelling business case for both gender, ethnic and cultural diversity. Companies that are gender and ethnically diverse outperform their peers on economic performance. Research by McKinsey found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. Beyond this, women are also shown to have a meaningful impact on a company’s culture. They are more likely than men to champion equality, embrace employee-friendly policies and mentor other women.

Research shows gender equality benefits everyone, but how can we attract and retain women within the industry?

As female engineers, we are often faced with less-supportive environments. We are often overlooked for our male counterparts (regardless of position), often greeted with diminishing terms and pet names, and there is a clear lack of routes into the industry for females. Mental health statistics also indicate that issues are not just experienced by females, with over a third of engineers describing their mental health as fair or poor . These examples and statistics show that as an industry we need to take action in creating a more supportive and equal environment. Challenging the cultural attitudes by introducing zero-tolerance policies, educating on unconscious bias and providing flexible work hours could all go to help creating an attractive workplace.

Ensuring basic needs in the workplace enables for a more diverse workforce.

As we work with heat networks in operation, and under construction, a part of our daily job is to work on construction sites. According to HSE regulation, a workplace, including a construction site should “provide flushing toilets and running water, connected to mains water and drainage systems”. It is further stated that “Men and women may use the same toilet, if it is in a lockable room and partitioned from any urinals. Otherwise provide separate toilets.” In 2019, the majority of sites we engaged with did not have any unisex or dedicated female toilets available to access.

Lina reflects on starting her role as Lead Engineer:

“In a scenario where you are the only female on site, I think it can sometimes feel like it is unnecessary to make a fuss over there not being a toilet around which you can use. But the truth is, it is important for all workplaces to ensure basic facilities are available to everyone.”

While the availability of a toilet might not stop you from pursuing your  dream job, a lack of basic facilities is likely to hinder a larger recruitment and retention of personnel. Going to work every day without an accessible toilet for you to use is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Therefore, ensuring the basic practical set-up of a workplace is thus an important building block in enabling for a diverse workplace.

Diversity as a catalyst for change.

Increased diversity and equality in the workplace can be a catalyst for change and improvement. At FairHeat in 2019, after the female engineers kept flagging a lack of facilities provided when working on site, they took the initiative to implement a female facilities checklist. The initiative had the aim of highlighting the issues in a consistent and traceable manner and simplifying for follow up to ensure the proper facilities were up in place. Through the support of the FairHeat management team, the female facilities checklist was incorporated into the FairHeat health and safety processes. The initiative with the checklist has been very successful, and today, all sites where FairHeat are engaged in work have a toilet available for females to access. Diversity can be a catalyst for improvement, but to enable for this, it is important to empower your employees to speak up. And listen to them when they do.

Enabling diversity and equality requires initiatives on multiple levels

Similar to the build out of district heating in the UK, increasing the number of women in the sector will not happen overnight. At 12%, the UK still have the lowest number of female engineers in Europe. As seen in the above examples, including, supporting and empowering women holds so many benefits. In order to actively work to increase the number of women working in our field, we need to look at solutions such as targeted work placements and training opportunities to provide women with a route into the industry. We also need to reach out to colleges and universities to generate awareness of the industry.

There are many organisations out there who work actively to promote women to pursue and work in engineering professions. These organisations have so many resources, tools, programs and platforms to simplify for your company to work actively with promoting equal opportunities. For example, organisations like Stemettes work to attract women and girls into pursuing technical careers and organisations like Women into Construction work to provide internships and opportunities for women to be recruited into industry professions.

In addition to working to attract and recruit women into the industry, we also have to work to retain the women who already work in the district heating sector. In addition to some of the solutions discussed earlier on in this post, solutions such as mentoring programs and female networks can provide methods for how to work to retain the female workforce. Again, there are a number of organisations out there doing this already, for example the District Heating Divas and the Women’s Engineering Society.

Lucy reflects on industry groups:

“The District Heating Diva’s platform is a great way to share thoughts, ideas and experiences with likeminded individuals. It is great to see collaboration from lots of inspirational women who hold a variety of roles across the industry!”

Building an industry where people want to work.

The district heating industry in the UK will continue to rapidly grow over the next decades. It is important to remember, that we are not only working to build a critical infrastructure to enable for the UK to meet its climate targets, but we are also building an industry in which 81 000 people may be employed by 2030. Let’s take this opportunity to also build an industry that is supportive and inclusive.

Do you or your organisation have thoughts on how to promote a supportive environment in the sector? Any best practises for how to attract more women into engineering professions? Or for how to successfully retain women already in the sector? Let us know in the comments or reach out directly by email! We look forward to hearing from you, together we will make a difference.

FairHeat wants to make a difference in this sector in pledging to provide women in the industry equal opportunities, ensuring an adequate environment, guaranteeing safety and promoting career development and upskilling opportunities for women. We are looking to get as many people on board as possible and we would love for you to join us. Would you be interested in pledging? If so, please email either of us and we’ll sign you up!