Women could do that...

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The Independent Online
What do train and bus drivers, telephone linemen and electrical engineers have in common? They're all blokes, bar a few exceptions, and there are not enough of them. Which is why, when Opportunity 2000 - the business-led campaign promoting women's development at work - held its awards ceremony last week it singled out initiatives by employers that were encouraging women to enter non-traditional employment.

South Wales Police Force, for example, found its 180-strong firearms department had just five women and surveyed potential female recruits to find out why. The problem, says Emma Mills, its equal opportunities adviser, was one of perception. Women felt they would be unwelcome. A number of firearms awareness days helped to dispel this prejudice and to highlight practical measures that needed taking - acquiring smaller weapons and better fitting body armour, and modifying the fitness test.

This example of marketing to get women to apply for jobs traditionally seen as exclusively or predominantly male, has applications in almost any industry where skilled recruits are at a premium. In the case of Newcastle- based bus company, Go North East, customer research showing that 70 per cent of its passengers were women and that women bus drivers were regarded as more considerate of customer needs persuaded the company to target female applicants.

When it approached the job centre, it found that staff and clients tended to rule out the idea of women bus drivers. So the company ran a series of taster days for employed women, including those attending a local authority- run, back-to-work programme. Two attendees are already driving, and that is just the start, says Madi Pilgrim, Go North East's operations Manager. One problem, however, is finding confident drivers; many women, although they are licence holders, are inexperienced because husbands tend to have first call on the family car.

A newly articulated customer focus was the driving force behind another initiative, which like those above was shortlisted by Opportunity 2000, run by Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE). Some 18 per cent of NIE's workers are women but the majority are clerks at HQ with little day-to-day knowledge of the operational side of the business, even though many are handling calls from customers and arranging engineering call-outs. In order to improve their prospects for promotion, it was realised, they needed to familiarise themselves with the sharp end of the business, to work from one of the 28 local offices, alongside the engineers, and to get a better technical knowledge.

As well as attending Springboard classes (a management programme to boost confidence), and going on awareness raising and try-it-and-see days at local operational centres, female staff also attended cable-laying and fault-identification lectures. Over 300 women have taken part and the payback has been remarkable, says Myran Pollock, equality and services manager. Women are now more visible across the organisation and working relationships between engineers and support staff have improved; the (male) engineers were made to feel more valued, because of the interest shown in their work, and support staff felt more comfortable taking down technical details.