The charity making life better by water

Celebrating our women in engineering

As we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day on 23 June, we’re delighted to share the inspiring careers of three of the many female engineers who work for our charity. With a national shortage of engineers, it’s more important than ever to encourage more women into the industry; and although 16.5% of UK engineers are now female, there’s still a long way to go. As the stories of Hayley, Hooi Lee and Sally show, we’re doing all we can to build an inclusive and diverse engineering team.

Hayley Harper – design & development manager

After 22 years as a canal engineer, Hayley uses her vast experience to lead our design and development team. As she explains: “Our team designs all our priority projects and priority works. In my role, I tend to do the troubleshooting, helping others by drawing on my experience.”

A female engineer in hi-viz clothing standing next to the canal

Right now, her team are covering the creation of new spillways costing c£20m at Toddbrook reservoir and c£10m at Harthill reservoir. With designs approved and construction underway, Hayley is still helping make sure all goes to plan: “There's a marked change in how we manage risk at the Canal & River Trust and delivering these huge projects shows our ambition. With the cost of everything going up, we need to make our designs as efficient as possible. Staying safe, but not over-engineering things, being innovative and preparing for climate change.”

However, her team also covers many smaller works on our historic network: “Canal civil engineering is different. We're dealing with hundreds of structures that are over 200 years old and they are all a bit quirky and unique. One of the projects I'm proudest of is the restoration of the Droitwich Canals. To see them now and think they're going to be there for another 100 years is quite an achievement.

As for the role of women in the industry, Hayley prefers just to see herself as an engineer, but things are changing. She tells Waterfront: “There are certainly more women involved now. When I started, I was a bit of novelty and though I love a chat, I did have to remind people that there's work to do! They might seem like small things, but having more female toilets on sites and getting a hi-vis jacket that fits are big signs of progress, but the Canal & River Trust is a supportive place to work for everyone. I'd encourage any new engineer to make the most of the vast range of structures, roles, and engineering challenges our network has to offer. Whether you go high up or not, I know the variety of experiences and exposures I've had really helped me.”

Hooi Lee – principal engineer

After just 10 months as a principal engineer with our asset management team and recently with our design and development team, Hooi Lee is already making an impact. Transferring cutting-edge technology from her former role on highways to canals has helped her innovation team win a nomination for an internal innovation award.

A woman standing next to lock gates on the canal

“Our team regularly go out and inspect structures, to assess their condition and prioritise repair works. It can take up a lot of time and money to inspect difficult to access and complex assets. So, our idea is to use drones to do those inspections. The data we collect can be used to build a full 3D computer model of a bridge, for example. Then we can analyse that model using AI to identify any critical defects. Having built the model once, we can then go back with the drone over time and track any deterioration in condition. It's safe, cost-effective, and shows what we do best as engineers. Never being fazed by a challenge and always finding solutions to problems.”

Hooi Lee feels this can-do attitude defines the industry: “You don't see yourself as male or female, Chinese or English. You are an engineer, there to solve problems. But it is true that there is a stereotype of this being a male dominated industry. It's great to have 16.5% of UK engineers being female*; numbers are increasing and female engineers have more visibility compared to 10 years ago, but there's still a way to go. The Canal & River Trust is very committed on diversity and inclusion. The innovation award is a very good example that everyone can enter the competition and bring out their ideas, skills and talents.”

There's also great hope in the next generation. Hooi Lee promotes engineering in schools and is encouraged by the questions she's asked: “Girls in school are now very clued up. They know what engineering is and are only curious about how to apply it. Now they ask, ‘How can I use my creativity as a civil engineer?' or ‘How can engineering find solutions to climate change?' I'm happy to see that, because with such a shortage of engineers, we want every single talent, whatever their gender or ethnicity. With more balance and inclusivity, we will have more creativity and innovation to solve problems faced by the society.

*Source: https://www.inwed.org.uk/about/

Sally Boddy – regional engineer

“I'd describe myself as an ‘advocate for assets', says Sally, explaining what her role involves. “In various guises over the last 30 years on the waterways, I've tried to be a voice for historic structures and make the case to get them fixed. One of my favorite projects was restoring the Sutton Weaver swing bridge in Cheshire, which was rusting and in very poor condition, causing a lot of public concern. Working with the Local Authority, in 2014, we delivered a £4.5 million restoration that secured the future of the bridge for decades to come.

On a smaller scale, I also love Bedford Street Bridge on the Caldon Canal, which is a modern restoration that I was keen should be sympathetic to the original design. The bridge deck now has new cambered steel beams and the original badly damaged cast iron parapets have been replaced with new ones, which we had specially cast, using traditional sand patterns by a foundry in Wolverhampton that's been there for over 100 years.”

A large swing bridge crossing the canal

Sally's passion for engineering goes back to her school days: “My favourite subjects were maths and sciences. When I investigated civil engineering, as a degree, nearly everything about it appealed to me. There's not just the maths for the calculations and physics for forces, but materials science, water engineering, public health, traffic management, geotechnics, geology, project management, finance, everything that interests me – I even got to do a module on the history of canals!

I had all these dreams of travelling the world, and in my job before this one I did design power stations that were built in Pakistan and Kenya, and wastewater treatment schemes and dams in Portugal. But back then there was always this reticence to send married female engineers abroad to work on site. So, whilst I sat working in the UK, I saw my male colleagues going off to Malaysia or Kenya or Pakistan. I thought that's just not right, so I followed my passion and explored the canal network instead.

A woman standing on a walkway over the canal

I've never felt unwelcome as a woman in engineering and I've had some brilliant bosses who've been super supportive over the years. I really think we need to do more to attract women into the profession. Gender shouldn't be an obstacle and my view is that any woman could be a civil engineer if they wanted to be. There's lots of women in the industry, and lots of men too, who are willing to help, mentor and encourage women into Civil Engineering, so, if you like the idea of learning about things, fixing things, and giving something that's 200 years old, another 200 years of life, why wouldn't you do it?”

Last Edited: 02 June 2023

photo of a location on the canals
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