The engineering company where women’s talents aren’t hidden

When James Brown sang in the 60s that it’s a man’s world, it seems he had the world of engineering in mind. After all, he specifically mentions in the song that it’s men who are responsible for making cars, trains, boats and the electric light. Regrettably, statistics today still bear out his view.


Less than 10%

Currently, women account for less than 10% of engineering professionals in the UK.

Not before time, however, determined steps are now being taken to address this state of affairs – notably at Atkins.

This is no small niche company. Atkins is one of the world’s leading engineering and design consultancies, involved in the planning and designing of major projects such as bridges, skyscrapers, rail network, and flood defence systems.

If you weren’t aware of Atkins, it’s probably because of the way they work. Unusually for companies these days, they concentrate on creating brilliant engineering masterpieces (and micropieces) rather than making a big song and dance about their achievements.

Their talents often remain hidden – at least, until they’re noted and appreciated by other people. A recent example of this was the nomination of the company by the Times as one of the Top 50 Employers for Women 2013.

Ambitious targets

Atkins clearly doesn’t want the talents of its female employees to go unnoticed. Their stated aim is that by 2015, one third of the company board will be female. By the same time, women should make up more than 20% of Atkins’ senior staff.

Ambitious targets, certainly. But not unachievable, with all the schemes the company has set up to make it happen.

Firstly, there’s a Women’s Professional Network to inspire female employees and support their career progression – though it should be said that a collaborative, encouraging culture exists throughout the company, as Associate Director Caroline Brown confirms: “A couple of times a senior manager has pulled me aside and said ‘I really think you should consider putting yourself forward for xyz…’ and those times have been pivotal.”

Then there’s a Women’s Leadership Council. This is a body of the company’s most senior women who guide the way for others and act as role models. A member of this Council sits on every senior promotion panel for female candidates and actively helps them prepare for the step up. (Important note: there are no quotas in operation here. Atkins’ female employees have made it clear they want to be recognised for their ability rather than their gender.)

Over the last two years, Atkins has also sponsored the participation of more than 120 female employees in a Women’s Development Programme.

Of course, in a male-dominated environment, the advancement of women depends to a large degree on the attitudes of men. With this in mind, Atkins has run events to raise awareness of unconscious bias, challenging the assumptions many people make about the opposite gender.

Gender balance improvement group

To measure the success of these measures, a Gender Balance Improvement Group constantly examines feedback from every part of the business. And every regional MD has produced a Diversity Plan, with a progress report expected every quarter.

The benefits offered to female employees at Atkins are as attractive as the opportunities. They include: flexible working; childcare vouchers; enhanced maternity pay; and a bonus payment for mothers returning from maternity leave.

But ultimately, the benefits of a better gender balance are felt by all. From a business point of view, companies with a good gender balance perform better, have deeper, more resilient client relationships and grow faster than companies that do not. They can draw on a wider range of abilities and approaches. Caroline Brown again: “Women’s differences can be their strengths. Whereas I might have previously tried to fit in to succeed, I now have the confidence to know that I don’t have to do that.”

Beyond even business success, though, is the simple fact that this is the right thing to do. In the end, Atkins is a people business; being fair, equal and helping each other to improve and advance is part of the culture of the company and of every person who works there. It feels nice, like sugar and spice (as Mr Brown might say).

To find out more about working at Atkins, visit

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