IT’S one of the country’s most iconic structures – a towering monument to the ingenuity of man stretching out across the Firth of Forth.
Rising 110 metres into the air, the Forth Bridge has become a symbol of Scotland’s industrious spirit, joined in later years by the road bridge and the yet-to-be-completed Queensferry Crossing – three different bridges constructed across three different centuries.
But it’s not just men who have helped build and maintain these colossal structures.
Women have long played a part in the life of the bridges – and now the Scottish Government is setting them up as an example to encourage more women to take up engineering and shape the country’s future.
Roseanna Cunningham MSP, Fair Work, Skills and Training Secretary, scaled the Forth Bridge’s criss-crossing steel beams with female engineers of all ages in a bid to inspire the next generation of school-leavers.
The fresh drive comes as the industry faces a huge skills shortage, with government officials hoping to improve the sector’s notoriously one-sided gender balance while bringing in thousands of highly-skilled female workers at the same time.
A £125,000 Scottish Government investment seeks to boost apprenticeships for girls, while £500,000 has been handed to Skills Development Scotland to develop an “equalities action plan” which includes work on gender issues.
Among those taking in the stunning views from the top was Leona Wilson, who has worked as a project operations interface specialist at Network Rail for the last two years.
The 44-year-old started her career selling tickets at train stations before deciding to go back to college to fulfil her ambitions – and she hasn’t looked back since.
Earlier this year, she was among a core team of specialists working through the night to install new signalling on the Forth Bridge in a bid to boost the frequency of services coming through from Fife. The fast-paced work has to be carried out under the cover of darkness to avoid the 200 trains that thunder over the cantilever railway bridge every day, with all the team’s equipment carefully lugged on and off at the beginning and end of each shift.
“It’s an amazing structure,” she said. “Working underneath, by the tracks, it actually felt scarier than being up the top.
“Working at night is a whole different environment. It’s actually quite quiet and surreal when it’s dark. It’s a challenge, really, and of course you’re all having to look out for each other’s safety as well. I love it.”
Elsewhere, Sarah Breen, 31, has spent the last six-and-a-half years working on the new Queensferry Crossing. The senior engineer, who works for global firm Arup, is rightfully proud as she looks out across the water to the huge structure finally taking shape a few hundred yards away.
She said: “It’s thrilling – I mean, look at the size of it. How many people get to work on something of this size? This has been over three-quarters of my career on this one project, so I’m invested.
“Especially now that they are lifting the deck segments, it really is starting to look like the artist’s impressions we’ve been looking at for the last seven years – it’s really starting to take shape.”
And while she said “a lot more” was being done to encourage women to follow in her footsteps, she insisted there was always space for fresh initiatives.
“I don’t notice a difference now between male and female colleagues – it’s not like you’re handled more delicately,” she said. “It’s becoming much more of a common thing, so it shouldn’t be a deterrent now for women coming into engineering. But sure, more can be done to let women – and especially young girls – know more about the opportunities that are available to them, not just in engineering, but in maths and sciences in general.”
Accompanying the more experienced women were 19-year-old second-year apprentice engineers Kayleigh Steele and Jo Milne, who both currently work with GE Oil & Gas in Montrose.
The pair grew up together and entered the industry shortly after leaving school, quickly finding themselves thrown into what is still very much a man’s world – not that it bothers them much.
“It’s fine – it doesn’t bother me at all,” said Kayleigh, who is the only girl in her workshop floor. “They don’t treat me any differently.”
Jo, who switched to engineering after trying out nursing and discovering she hated it, said: “It’s a really good job. Our first year was hard work because we were learning a lot, but it was really good.”
Speaking from the viewing platform at the top of the Forth Bridge, Ms Cunningham said her experience in politics had shown her the benefits of improving gender equality.
She said: “I think if women go into engineering it’s good for women, it’s good for society, but most of all it’s good for engineering because right now there’s a skills gap.
“If there’s a skills gap, then why would you not be trying to encourage more people, more young women, into the sector?
“You don’t want to see this kind of implicit gender segregation – after all, I work in a job in politics that 20 or 30 years ago would have looked all male. We’ve changed that – we haven’t completely sorted that one out either – but we’ve changed that, and I think it makes politics better for having representation from the whole population. I think that applies to any industrial sector.”