International Day of Women and Girls in Science: How the highways and transportation sector can inspire more women to join the industry, with WSP Director Joanna Lyon

10th Feb 2023

Today, 11th February marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (IDWGIS). Implemented by UNESCO and UN Women, this day is an opportunity to promote equal access and participation for women and girls in science.

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This year, IDWGIS focuses on the role of Women and Girls and Science related to the Sustainable Development Goals with the aim of connecting the international community to Women and Girls in Science strengthening the ties between science, policy, and society for strategies oriented towards the future.

A significant gender gap has persisted throughout the years at all levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines all over the world. Even though women have made tremendous progress towards increasing their participation in higher education, they are still under-represented in these fields.

CIHT spoke to WSP Director Joanna Lyon for IDWGIS and discussed how we can increase the number of women in the engineering sector and what we can do to achieve gender equality. Joanna took part in a CIHT 8 questions in 2021 on IDWGIS so we also asked her if she had seen any progression since.

According to UNESCO data, only around 30% of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. What should be done to increase the percentage of students selecting STEM-related fields in higher education?

We all have a part to play in encouraging women and girls to pursue STEM subjects. Girls often begin to study and enjoy science subjects at age 11 but fall out of love with them by the age of 16.

We have a window of opportunity to inspire them about future careers in STEM fields, and to encourage them to continue to study science subjects. Helping them to understanding the wide range of careers that all require science or maths and providing access to role models, combined with parental and teacher support, can help to show girls that science subjects are fun, rewarding and can empower girls to follow a STEM-based future.

What should highways and transportation organisations do to encourage women to join the sector?

One of the best things organisations can do is to provide first-hand accounts of the industry they work in. Organisations can use diverse online role models as part of their recruitment strategy, arrange virtual meetings or online chat sessions with current employees, and make connections with recent recruits and early career professionals who can ‘tell it like it is’. First-hand accounts can bring to life a career option, reassuring women that they will be valued and help potential recruits to visualise themselves having a successful career in highways and transportation.

In parallel, many companies recruit through word of mouth and personal recommendations and, whilst effective, this can result in a risk that they will only reach out to more of the same kind of people, so organisations need to monitor and assess the diversity of their candidate pools and take steps to proactively reach groups that might otherwise not discover the opportunities available to them.

What should highways and transportation organisations do to achieve gender equity in the workplace?

Reflecting on the difference between equality and equity, organisations can recognise that women have much to offer by bringing a fresh and changing perspective. Achieving gender equity means ensuring that differences are not ignored but embraced, recognising that women and men have different needs and approaching these differences in a way that is positive and effective for all.

 An organisation which genuinely commits to helping women to develop should provide them not only with technical skills and knowledge, but a safe place to ask questions and feel valued. We also need to help people to work flexibly. Recruiting a diverse workforce is difficult, but it is just as important to retain women once they have joined the company. 

How has your background in science helped support you in your career?

Studying science and maths is a basic building block for my career in Transport Planning. More than that, studying maths provides skills necessary in managing any business, and studying science develops a way of thinking about problems and challenges, which can be applied to most situations. It encourages creativity, as well as analytical thinking, which is valuable in many careers.

Since International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2021, have you noticed an increase in women joining the sector?

Unfortunately, there still seem to be fewer women seeking careers in transport and highways than men. However, if we recognise that we need to influence girls to continue to study science and maths fields, both at school and in higher education, then it is likely to take a few more years before we start to see meaningful change to the current patterns.

Have you seen a positive change in your employer ensuring there is diversity and inclusion within your workplace? 

I think there has been an increased recognition across many organisations of the need to support women to develop their careers within science and engineering. There is more focus on achieving diversity in recruitment and on retaining, developing and promoting women to positions of leadership within organisations.

My employer, WSP, launched a new Inclusion and Diversity Strategy in 2021, and since then we have improved the proportion of female graduates and apprentices, and the overall proportion of females in our UK workforce, in line with our targets. At the end of 2022, 25% of our senior and middle managers were female, a 6% increase since 2019, which shows that the efforts being made are resulting in positive changes within our business.

What can we do?

We have a lot still do to ensure the engineering industry is a diverse and inclusive sector and the increase in recognition across organisations that Joanna discussed is a step in the right direction. Using education and examples of role diverse role models in the workplace can be one way of demonstrating to young Girls and Women that there is a space for them in engineering.

Here at CIHT we launched our EDI strategy ‘Shifting the Dial’ strategy. The 5-year long strategy aims to break the bias and outlines an ambitious strategy that will use CIHT's position as a strategic influencer and leader in the transport sector to effect change. 

If you are keen on encouraging girls into STEM fields why not become a STEM Ambassador? CIHT STEM Ambassadors inspire young people to continue studying STEM subjects and help them explore the applications of their studies in the wider world.


The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the CIHT or its members. Neither the CIHT nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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