Posted: 5 January 2015
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Changing attitudes

National Grid Chief Executive Steve Holliday highlights the compelling need to encourage more women into engineering.

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Changing attitudes

Changing attitudes

Meter Worker Michelle Moore testing a meter in Coventry. Only 5.5% of engineering professionals in the United Kingdom are female.

"The challenge is how do we change cultural and societal norms."

Steve Holliday, National Grid Chief Executive.


Only 15-18% of engineering, technology and computer science students are female.

Source: National Grid.

At a recent conference I reinforced a point made to me by one of our senior women managers – that over the next ten years, we desperately need workers. Specifically, we need skilled, relatively high-earning engineers. So, it’s a complete no-brainer for a company like ours to encourage more women – who of course account for 50 per cent of the available workforce – into our organisation.

Steve Holliday, National Grid Chief Executive.


Why would any company cut themselves off from a valuable talent pool that could help them run their business? Why wouldn’t we grab the chance to improve our business?

The reality is that there are nowhere near enough STEM qualified people, male or female, coming through the education system to replace those who will retire in the next 10 years – not just for National Grid but for a wide range of industries.

Much as I’d like to, I can’t just flip a switch and change National Grid’s employment profile to 50:50 women:men tomorrow. Because it’s not about filling quotas and ticking the equality box. For everyone’s good – business, society and the individual – we have to have the right people in the right roles. ‘Right’ meaning with the necessary skills, abilities and enthusiasms for both them and the company to thrive and prosper.

The challenge is how do we change cultural and societal norms — and urgently.

The facts here are stark and depressing. Only 15-18% of engineering, technology and computer science students are female, and only 5.5% of engineering professionals are female. In 2014, only 21% of those taking physics A level in the UK were girls.

Our own research among school age children and their parents has showed that girls are 10 times less likely than boys to want to be an engineer.

And when society succeeds in showing our girls and young women that they can aspire and that they can succeed; what then? That’s just the first step. How do we then make sure that our workplaces help them thrive, develop and want to stay?

At National Grid, we do pretty well as far as the average is concerned. We have achieved:

  • 25% of women on our Board – although 50% would be better.
  • 23% of our workforce is female – although again, 50% is what it should be.
  • We’re in the Sunday Times Top 50 Employers For Women again this year.
  • Our US business has also won several prestigious awards for our efforts in promoting diversity, gender equality and providing career advancement opportunities for women.

We are involved in a number of initiatives to influence the pipeline by attracting talent at primary and secondary school levels. They include:

  • School Power: our scheme for primary age children, which offers free learning resources to teachers to run fun but academically-sound science and innovation demonstration.
  • Imagineering: this provides volunteering opportunities for our employees to introduce 8-16 year olds to STEM.
  • Careers Lab: an initiative we developed that has now been taken up by BiTC. It links working professionals with schools to bring the world of work and possibilities to life for secondary school children as they decide on their future direction.

I recently attended Engineer Your Future at the Science Museum in London. It is a major new exhibition that was officially opened by the Prince of Wales. It seeks to engage young people aged 11-15 with engineering and will overcome outdated perceptions of what an engineer does.

At National Grid we strongly encourage women who have succeeded in non-traditional areas to get out into the business and encourage those still developing, to show what’s possible – like Rachel Morfill, our first female Power Systems manager, for example.

There’s mutual support available through our Women in National Grid (WiNG) employee network group, sponsored by Cordi O’Hara, the first female director in charge of keeping the UK’s lights on. It’s a vibrant group that’s active across our business. This network also sponsors and develops training programmes targeted specifically at women as they progress their careers through the organisation.

And of course we have family friendly policies that are measured and reported. These include a range of flexible working arrangements, parental leave, career breaks and flexible benefits.

Changing deeply held biases will need sustained, collaborative effort. But we also need to show less patience and demonstrate more urgency. And we need to recognise that the indisputable financial case is that true gender equality opens up the broadest possible talent pool to business, which will drive economic prosperity.

This has to be led from the top and is a priority for me. I know in National Grid we still have more work to do to make this change the responsibility of all our leaders.

Read more:

Caroline Hooley and Susan McDonald explain the importance of encouraging more women into engineering careers.

National Grid’s Senior Strategy Analyst Susan McDonald reports on a recent event covering the rise of the female economy.

Simon Langley explains why gender imbalance and other forms of exclusion are such an important challenge for business.

Gas innovation in full flow