Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Memories of 1960's Sheffield from our first female Civil Engineering Graduate - Mrs Alison Moore

Alison Moore BEng Civil Engineer Graduate of 1964

50 years ago Mrs Alison Moore BEng graduated from our University. In her own words, she shares an honest account of what life was like for a fledgling female Civil Engineer at University and in industry.

Between 1950 and 1960 I spent ten years at a very low key girls’ boarding school in the middle of nowhere. At this time relatively few girls went to university so my parents were a little surprised when I announced that I would like to not only go to university but to read civil engineering - I think that I had romantic notions about building grandiose bridges and spectacular dams! In fact, my father was so concerned that his delicate flower of a daughter might struggle in such a male environment that he arranged an interview with Professor Boulton, the then Professor of Civil Engineering, to make sure that I would be properly cared for! Obviously he received the right assurances and I was allowed to apply and in due course was offered a place on the course.

Unfortunately my school had no idea about university courses and I discovered that I would require A Level Chemistry in addition to Maths and Physics which were my only A Level subjects. I was instead offered a place in the Preliminary year which catered for those with the wrong A Levels and international students who needed to improve their language skills. This proved to be fortunate as there was one other girl in the year who was reading Mechanical Engineering. For this first year we joined forces and had a fairly easy time where we covered Engineering Drawing, which had obviously not featured at my Victorian Ladies’ school, maths and an awful lot of chemistry. This left plenty of time for sport and social activities and participation in the University Boat Race. Our home made boat of wood, wire and oil drums survived the course better than many put together by the boys so we were obviously learning some engineering skills!

For my first proper year in Civil Engineering I had another girl to keep me company but she struggled to cope with the male company (not that they were unkind or particularly chauvinistic) and she gave up after one year, which left me as the only girl and eventually the first one to graduate in civil engineering. After some initial wariness I was treated normally by the rest of my classmates. My only problem was that the lecturers always knew if I was absent! As trousers for girls were still considered a bit risque at that time I usually wore skirts and high heels to mix concrete, climb over the machinery or whatever else we were doing in the labs.

I joined the Engineering Society which then covered all the engineering courses and graduated from being Year Rep to Publicity Officer and eventually Secretary. This gave me my first success as a woman in a man’s world! After a particularly drunken Engineering Society Dinner at a nearby hotel there was a slight disagreement about the fate of several bottles of liqueurs which some unfortunate waiter was foolish enough to leave on a table. The manager became extremely agitated and vocal in the process of throwing us out of the hotel and stated very loudly that he would be getting in touch with the Secretary. At this point I stepped forward, all of five feet two inches in my best red velvet, low necked mini-dress and six inch heels and informed him that I was the Secretary. That put an end to all the swearing as in those days no gentleman could swear and shout at a lady and no more was heard of the incident. (Apart from all engineering societies being banned from the hotel!) From then on this became one of my particular roles in engineering!

"I travelled all over the country supervising teams and ran the drawing office as well as practicing my special skills as a trouble shooter whenever a contract went wrong"

My only really negative treatment was my first summer vacation job when I spent two months at a local engineering consultants. Instead of giving me a proper engineering job I was side-lined to the architects’ department and given very trivial tasks which I had to persist with in order to fulfil my holiday commitment. Fortunately the following year I had exactly the opposite experience when I was given a job at the local Water Board, where everyone was very supportive and I was given work in all the different departments.

In 1964 I applied for my first full time job at a firm who were recruiting Designer/Detailers for a new Sheffield office. At my interview it was made clear that I could not expect to have any site experience as there were so many young men in the company who would take priority! I was in fact the first female graduate that they employed and I was very pleased to see in later years that they were one of the first firms of consulting engineers to allow women on site. I moved on to a small specialist firm of pipeline engineers who were involved in surveying and contracting work for the Gas and Water Boards. Our biggest area of work was locating and checking gas pipelines in preparation for conversion to natural gas and this was my job. We worked closely with a German company who manufactured mains location and gas leak detection equipment, which demanded specialist teams working in the field and a drawing office to record the results. I travelled all over the country supervising the teams and ran the drawing office as well as practicing my special skills as a trouble shooter whenever a contract went wrong.

In general I think that most men were very supportive of a woman coming into their world although I was never really treated as an equal. I was especially a target at conferences where I was usually a minority of one and quite a number of the men thought that I would be 'available' after a few drinks.

My engineering career was all too short as I 'retired' when I married, which was still very much the norm in the 1960s and by the time that my children left home I was too busy and too long out of touch to pick up my career.

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