“You have to deal with everything that being on a construction site throws at you,” she says. “Men would be working on sites for many years, never coming across a woman. Then they come across a woman – I also happen to be a person of colour, which is interesting – turning up, telling them what to do. And it’s quite tricky.”
She handled it nonetheless, and she credits an upbringing with four brothers for helping her deal with the “whingeing and talking back.” She progressed quickly, becoming an expert in an underserved field and moving up the career ladder – but still, she says, she was the only woman in the engineering department.
Since then she has progressed rapidly, becoming an associate director at the age of 26 and starting her own engineering and environmental consultancy from her kitchen table in 2009. 10 years later, her firm has just celebrated hitting £2m annual turnover.
Savage is determined to use her success to empower other women and improve diversity – something that becomes more pressing each year that goes by with little change.
According to the Women’s Engineering Society, only about 11% of professional engineers in the UK are female – possibly the lowest rate in Europe – and other sources quote even lower levels. Gender pay gap data released by companies last year showed the disparity between men and women’s salaries at many firms. Professional Engineering found more than 70 engineering-related companies paying men at least 35% more than women, meaning the women employed by the companies were in worse paid and probably less senior roles.
Although under-representation of women at all levels of engineering is a topic of much discussion at engineering institutions, it is an issue that persists despite outreach and initiatives. A Knowledge Academy analysis of UCAS figures released yesterday (28 January), for example, revealed engineering courses are the second most popular for men, with 87,000 starting courses in the 2018-19 year. In contrast, only 18,150 women started an engineering course. The figures show a higher proportion than in the workforce, but statistics cited by previous IMechE president Carolyn Griffiths showed that only 37% of women who graduate in engineering will work in the industry.
There are many obstacles in the way of female engineers, but one of the most concerning is workplace sexism. “I’ve met women who worked as female engineers and they had bad experiences,” says Savage. “[One woman] left the industry because it was too masculine for her, the men were very ‘overpowering and domineering’… then they’d go to the pub and they would make sexist comments. Many women do get shocked by it, and they would rather not deal with it.”
Away from the workshops, building sites and pubs, company boards are still predominantly white men, who Savage says are more likely to “align with white males on pay rises and general treatment”. “We need more women in leadership positions because when you do, you have more women speaking up for women,” she says.
Things are changing, says Savage, and most companies now have diversity and inclusion policies, but other issues persist. Women often find it difficult to return to work after having a child, especially if the job involves travelling between different sites. Savage says she might have “dropped out” of engineering after a few years if her family had not been as supportive as it was.
Plugging the skills gap
Despite being on the civil side of the engineering spectrum, she has a universal message of support for women throughout the industry. “It’s really important for me to be a role model,” she tells Professional Engineering, and her company reflects that. Jomas Associates is 40% female and the founder puts an emphasis on helping, supporting and retaining women.
She also does outreach work, hoping to encourage future female engineers. “I speak to young children to catch them at the grassroots… explaining to them that engineering is a career they can look at. Everything we do in this life has some engineering in it – not just being on a site or in a factory.”
Roni Savage recently won the Athena Award for most inspirational woman running a business trading for 6-9 years at the NatWest Everywoman Awards
This is not diversity for diversity’s sake. Figures show the most gender diverse companies are 21% more likely to be more profitable than the least diverse, while the most ethnically diverse are 33% more likely to be more profitable.
“It makes for a better environment if we are diverse,” says Savage. “It makes the business work a lot better and it’s beneficial for everybody to make diversity an important factor in recruitment.”
In engineering, there is also the ever-present void that is the skills gap, something that could be thrown into even sharper focus as the UK exits the European Union. It is yet another reason to encourage more women into engineering, Savage says, and she rebuffs a common argument from those who question her female-focused efforts.
“I get asked all the time, ‘Why don’t you focus on everybody?’ The bottom line is we have got an industry where one in 10 is female and we have a skills shortage… it’s not a case of putting the men aside – the men alone are unable to plug the skills gap.”
Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily reflect the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.