Women: Blazing a trail in infrastructure

Women are increasingly filling key roles at large infrastructure projects

«Women comprise half of the U.S. population, yet hold only 1 in 5 of architect roles and 1 in 7 engineer roles».
Darlene K. Gee and Charissa Frank are two infrastructure veterans, and have worked for decades at companies that were involved in some of California’s most important projects. On March 14, after a lifetime spent on worksites, they wrote an article for “The Mercury News” newspaper entitled «More Women Leaders Needed for Transportation Projects».
Infrastructure projects, especially in the transport sector, should pay more attention to the needs of the entire population, they believe.
«Our transportation system in the Bay Area is trending in the right direction, but more must be done to foster inclusivity in complex architecture, engineering, construction and program management projects», they wrote.
The call by Gee and Frank did not fall on deaf ears. It has been accompanied by a global push to open up the infrastructure sector to women. In June 2017, the World Bank published a post on its blog by Julia Prescot, a manager at Meridiam, an investment fund specialising in infrastructure investment. Prescot told the story of a solar energy project in Senegal called Senergy that the country’s first solar plant accompanied by a series of training courses for women.
The United Nations has also spoken up on the issue of women in infrastructure, where they can play an important role in project development.
«When the word ‘infrastructure’ is mentioned, the picture that often comes to mind is men working on construction sites», writes Shameena Jeewooth, a female engineer who works for the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS). «Although the number of women graduating with engineering degrees is increasing, very few women ultimately take up civil engineering as their career».
Jeewooth manages an infrastructure project in Burundi, an area with a lack of reliable access to water and electricity, and where freedom of movement is restricted. Her experience is recounted in a blog post titled «Gender and Infrastructure: Can we get more women into engineering?» on the UNOPS website.  
«This work normally takes place in some of the most challenging locations in the world», she writes. «Too often, women don’t have the same opportunities as male colleagues to work in these places, due to the assumption that women either can’t or don’t want to work there – we’re seen as too fragile to or incapable of handling the long hours in difficult locations».

Women in construction industry

Even though the numbers are still unsatisfactory, the old prejudices seem to be on the way out. In November at London’s Waldorf Hilton, 300 leading women managers from the world’s largest construction firms will take part in an international forum called “Women in Infrastructure”.
One of the conference’s sponsors is the Women’s Infrastructure Network, a global network of 3,000 members active in the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. The group helps build connections between women working in infrastructure in both the public and private sectors. Actually, the roots of these sort of networking groups go back nearly 100 years to the Women’s Engineering Society. Founded in 1919, it was up and running during World War I with the goal of supporting women making their professional contribution to the war effort while the men were fighting on the front.  
Nearly 100 years later, the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) is recognized across the United States and each year awards the WE50, a prize for the top 50 most influential women in the engineering sector.
«For the Top 50, we looked for women who had overcome hurdles and returned to or transferred into/or across roles in engineering», commented WES Chief Executive Kirsten Bodley on the group’s website. «In addition, they have all demonstrated that they are doing something to help support and inspire other women to succeed and progress in engineering».
The prize therefore goes to managers at companies and investment funds, professors at universities and researchers - all of them committed to excellence and to the global progress of engineering.