American Air Museum: Image by Christopher Kern, Wikicommons.
Faith Wainwright MBE, FREng, graduated from Oxford University and joined Arup in 1983, when she also joined the Institution. She became a Chartered member in 1987 and a Fellow in 2002. During her career she has designed a number of remarkable projects and currently is a Director and leader of Arup University. Here she talks about her career in structural engineering, her current role, and her thoughts on women in the profession.
I always had an enthusiasm for engineering – as a child I used to help my Dad with his home improvement projects, fitting shelves and concreting steps, and after homing in on civil engineering at 16, I never looked back. It was a great opportunity to apply my understanding of maths and sciences practically, and a profession that excited me.
The early 80s was a challenging time to begin your career – pre-uni, I applied to about 50 companies for training and only one, Arup, responded. I was very lucky to get the placement, which gave me invaluable experience over six months with some really inspiring people.
During my career I’ve been privileged to work on some remarkable projects. The Duxford American Air Museum was a great example of efficient, innovative engineering delivering a beautiful building. I was inspired by the works of Felix Candela
, a Spanish architect (and Institution Gold Medallist), to suggest a concrete solution to the Museum’s roof. This not only looked good, but eliminated the need for a false ceiling and provided better environmental control to preserve the historic aeroplanes. I’m very proud of my work on the Tate Modern as well – a phenomenal renovation project that celebrated the raw, industrial Gilbert Scott design while creating a wonderful exhibition space. The project presented significant engineering challenges – not least how to keep the walls in place while stripping out the roof, at a reasonable cost.
Now I am delighted to be a leader of Arup University, where I work to see that our communities of structural engineers and other disciplines are at the forefront of their fields - sharing knowledge across the firm’s global operations, directing research and developing the guides engineers need to keep on top of emerging technologies and practise. We are all about fulfilling learning needs and developing careers, and we offer a Masters-level programme in collaboration with academic institutions to develop skills in emerging areas of business like BIM, Smart Cities and Urban Mobility.
It’s true that there are still far more men entering the structural engineering profession than women, (University engineering courses struggle to get much more than 15% female students) but I think the women we do get are so motivated that they tend to be extremely capable.
As a woman I’ve only ever enjoyed respect from co-workers, and always loved working on site, where I found a great sense of teamwork and commitment. There were issues I faced when starting out in my career: In the ‘80’s I was on a site near Oxford Street in London which had no ladies - so I had to leave the site and walk to Debenhams if I wanted to use the facilities! More seriously when I had my three children, I worked full time throughout, and didn’t know any contemporaries who might be in a similar position to share my experiences with. This has improved – we are much better as an industry at providing mentoring and support, and offering flexible working hours. However, women still frequently encounter the old ‘glass ceiling’, which means there are still too few women in top engineering jobs. This is changing, but slowly.
Structural engineering is a great career for anyone who wants to help shape the world around them. It is, perhaps more than any other, a truly collaborative profession, as you have to work closely with other industry professionals like architects, planners and other specialists, to make a success of a project. Indeed this kind of collaborative working is ever more crucial as the world faces the challenges of the future, such as limitations on resources, increasing populations, urban water management and even food security. Engineers need to take the lead in thinking hard about what we build, and how, in order to address these needs. And as a result I expect we’ll see greater much recognition for our work.