Natalie Harvey (not her real name) began her career as a sixteen year-old apprentice. She has been working as a civil engineer for local authorities and the private sector, both as consultant and contractor, for more than 25 years.
“When I began my apprenticeship, my new boss asked to meet with my parents. He wanted to make sure I fully understood the kind of atmosphere I would be dealing with, as the only woman on a construction site. He was a really kind man who understood some of the prejudice and gender challenges I would face, and he wanted to make sure I had a good support network at home. Since then I’ve seen it all and heard all the comments. You develop a very thick skin, especially in contracting. There certainly wasn’t any point moaning about it, that would single you out as ‘weak’. For years I decided the best approach for me was, ‘put up and shut up, or go home’.
“I’ve worked on some of the biggest projects and most interesting jobs during my time with local authorities and in the private sector. I’ve had to argue my case to get these roles, but I secured them. But I’ve also definitely experienced a glass ceiling. Most civil engineering senior teams in local government have one female member, maximum, and more usually none. I’m still dealing with a generation of men with little or no experience of working with women in their industry.
“I found the gender pay gap even more pronounced in the private sector. The Old Boys’ Network very much still exists. I worked at a firm where men had an annual Golf Day, while the women who worked in the front office had a Girls Day Out. I didn’t belong in one camp or the other - and I don’t play golf - so I was invited to neither.
“Just a few years ago, a male colleague was offered a high profile, career-changing project. I had more experience, and asked my manager why I hadn’t been approached. His response was, “Well, this job involves regular travel, and we know you have kids.” I was a working mother, so he hadn’t seen the point in even asking me. When I pointed this out he was mortified. He realised his mistake. But by then it was too late, the role had gone to someone else.