Janet Horton is a highways standards and change manager and STEM Ambassador on our Birmingham Highways Interim Services contract. In this blog, Janet explains why she became an engineer and how times have changed in the STEM sector.
“Back in 1942, the UK was at war. My grandfather was killed on active duty, and my mother had to leave school and get a job. Aged 16, her education had been interrupted when she was evacuated first from London to Surrey, and then up to Morecambe in Lancashire. She had no useful qualifications. Back then, the school leavers’ exam was the School Certificate and you had to pass six subjects including English and Maths to get it. What was she going to do?
With men joining up to the Armed Forces, non-traditional job roles were being opened up to women. My mother was recruited by London County Council (LCC) to work in the architect’s office. Initially, she started work as a tracer. A tracer traces over the drawing done by the draftsman or designer so that the drawing is on a film which then can be copied using the old blueprint process. Of course, It is now an obsolete role as everything is done on computer. But back then she and another woman, Elsie, were the first women to have taken on that job.
No one knew quite what to do with them. Their first morning, they cleaned the office windows that hadn’t been cleaned for months. However, she and Elsie soon settled into their roles, and were sent by the LCC to college; first to night school and then on day release in order to qualify as architects.
When I was a child, my mother used to work at home on a freelance basis, drawing up plans for local builders. I used to love looking through the Architect’s Journal. At the age of about eight, I decided that I wanted to be an architect. This was still my plan up until the age of about 14 or 15.
So why did I change my mind? Don’t get me wrong, I think I could have had a good career as an architect. However, it all changed when I went to a careers convention held in conjunction with the local boys’ school. As I went around the stalls, I was looking for careers that would need maths and physics at A-level. Although I was good at foreign languages, I had decided that maths and physics were likely to lead to better paid careers. However, it was clear that some of the men there were not expecting to have to talk to girls about careers in construction or engineering. The exception was the civil engineer, who was most encouraging. I still have the booklet that he gave me that evening.
How many other girls have been put off over the years? Who never applied in the first place? Who changed career after graduating and became an accountant or a teacher? Who couldn’t find a way back into the industry after having their children?
Thankfully, times have changed. Interviewers can no longer ask whether your husband minds you applying for a job that is going to involve moving round the country or when you are planning to have babies. We now have equality, inclusion and diversity teams and figures in the workplace. Women are quite likely to be joining in the football chat, especially when the Lionesses are on form!”
Janet and eight other colleagues from Kier Highways will be visiting Lordswood Girls’ School in Harborne on 25 June and hosting a ‘What’s My Line’ event. Its aim is to promote STEM subjects and STEM careers and provide information about the world of work to 15-year olds who will be making decisions in the next year on what to do post-16.