March is #WomensHistoryMonth and we’re sharing the stories of women who made engineering history: from the lesser known Brunel women, trailblazing female engineers from the past or the women making history today with their feats of engineering. Today, our Chair of Trustees Dana Skelley on her experiences of everyday sexism when she was responsible for road bridges for Wandsworth Borough Council.
As a Chartered Engineer with over thirty years in the design and delivery of transport infrastructure I have worked mainly for the public sector, and mainly with men.
When I worked for Wandsworth Borough Council (1987 to 2000) I was responsible for road bridges. I learned one evening that a structure I was responsible for was in a bit of bother. In fact the structure was the Battersea Bridge and it had been hit, in no uncertain terms, by a fully laden barge. It was late in the evening, I was at home and I live only two miles from the bridge. Knowing that the traffic would be difficult with the bridge closed, I hopped on my bike and peddled to the scene of the crisis. The bridge was cordoned off by the police and there was a cop waiting for the engineer to arrive. Up I cycle. ‘You can’t cycle through ‘ere love … the bridge is closed’.
‘I know, I’m the engineer who will assess the damage and decide whether it can be reopened or not.’
‘Get away, will you?’
‘No, really I am the engineer.’
‘But you’re a woman.’
‘Yes I’m one of those too. Would it help if I showed you my business card?’
After these formalities it was agreed, by a rather surprised constable, that I was indeed the woman for the job.
In I go. But in these cases you can’t assess the impact … unless you look at the underside of the bridge. The Port of London Authority was most obliging by providing me a launch to pick me up at Westminster Pier.
Time for another mode of transport. I locked up my bike and took a bus to the pier – you can’t take a bike on a launch.
I arrived at the pier before the Port of London Authority and stood there waiting on the closed pier.
Suddenly, the voice of the law again from a Police launch. A true and earnest voice of concern.
‘Don’t do it love! It can’t be that bad!’
Er, I’m waiting for the PLA. And suddenly I’m having the same conversation I had just recently all over again.
I loved the concern but I still wonder whether had I been a man my situation and explanations would have been more readily accepted without me having to prove my credentials.
Dana Skelley is Chair of Trustees of the Brunel Museum.