Kate Leighton of AECOM has been a structural engineer since 2004. She is Chair of the Institution’s Wales Regional Group and was presented with a Service Award this month to recognise her outstanding efforts in that role. For Women in Engineering Day she discusses her career, motherhood, structural engineering and why we need more women engineers. #INWED17
My grandparents played a key role in shaping my career choice. My love of historic buildings comes from my Grandma, who was a teacher with a passion for history. She used to take me and my sisters to lots of National Trust properties and castles, and I thought it would be a great job to explore these buildings and nose behind the scenes.
In Northern Ireland my Granda looked after a quarry close to where we lived and I always found it fascinating to watch the trucks moving around and exciting when they were blowing up rock. I think that really got me interested in the infrastructure challenges engineers try to solve.
Initially I applied to do Architecture at University, because I misunderstood built environment roles. It wasn’t until I was in first year at university that I realised engineering was the right career path for me. It has been a hugely rewarding career choice.
One of my greatest highlights was providing technical advice for Royal and Sun Alliance following the Cotswold flooding of 2007, which saw an unprecedented number of homes, business and schools affected. It was a special achievement to get 98% of these families back into their homes in under a year.
I was also lucky enough to be given the opportunity to reinvigorate a structural engineering office in Cardiff. During my time both staff numbers and turnover doubled, while I was also responsible for recruiting and mentoring and outsourcing work to other offices. A key project in our success was the International Convention Centre for Wales, an £85m project with a 26000 sqm footprint.
I am proud of the fact that during this busy time I squeezed in starting a family. Planning of maternity leave around career seems such a daunting challenge, but you adapt to the circumstances and realise that it wasn’t quite as scary as you thought it would be. I am very lucky in that my other half is also a structural engineer, so we understand the demands of the job and shared maternity leave - I went back to work when our daughter was five months old.
Engineering is a great career, irrespective of whether you are male or female. It’s all about using brain power to make the world a better place. In the UK we’re not as good as we could be getting women into engineering: mainly I think this is because we don’t get children excited about careers at a young enough age, which means that young people are making career choices when they are less free to imagine the possibilities.
In Sweden there is a careers programme called Snilleblixtana (The Flashes of Genius) which is aimed at children from five to ten. In the UK we shy away from this sort of early encouragement because it is considered to apply unnecessary pressure. But it’s at this stage of life that we are free to imagine and play make believe.
If we want to boost the numbers of women entering engineering careers we need to collaborate more with other industries to provide rounded careers advice that is inspiring, creative and sparks the imagination at a younger age. We need to push the message that engineering offers a good salary, great flexibility and a high level of job satisfaction – and that women can bring a lot to the table.
We are different from men and we should embrace those qualities. We tend to be more empathetic, and take more time over problems. We also have better work life balance because we need to if we aspire to have it all, and as a result we tend to encourage this balance in our colleagues and run happier teams. Women in Engineering Day is a great chance for us to reach out and let young women know: you could be a great engineer.