How did you become a structural engineer?
At A-level I chose maths, physics and chemistry because they were among my strongest subjects. I had no idea of what I wanted to do at university, so my thinking was based on what was possible with those A-levels. Not many students went to university from my school, so I was left to my own devices by the careers department.
I had narrowed it down to civil or aeronautical engineering, but I had a sneaking preference for aeronautical (who doesn’t like aeroplanes?) It turned out that one of my uncles worked in the aeronautical industry and he advised me to go for civil engineering instead!
I applied to do Civil Engineering and I earned a place at the University of Southampton. I chose to do the four-year MEng with a possibility of the fourth year in France at an engineering school in Paris.
The first three years in the UK were very much general civil engineering but the fourth year was in effect a one-year specialisation in heavy structural engineering (bridges and tunnels). I chose to be transferred to this option because of the year in France.
The time in France included six months of work experience, which I really enjoyed. Following this, I found a job in Paris with a French structural engineering practice and ended up staying for a further seven years. In France there is no equivalent to chartership. If you graduate from a French engineering school you are already considered to be competent.
In 1999, I moved back to the UK and joined Robert Benaim and Associates (a 40-strong practice at the time which is now part of AECOM). I quickly realised that chartership makes a significant difference to how you are perceived both inside and outside your company in the UK.
Based on my experience up to that point, I felt that taking the IStructE exam would be the most suitable route to chartership. I took a course and practised with past papers before passing the exam in 2001.
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
Working on the detailed design of the 16km Penang Second Crossing going from the Malaysian mainland to the island of Penang. It is a simply brilliant project and was an unbelievably enriching experience.
What role models have had a positive influence on you and your career?
My mother worked as a doctor in the NHS, mainly in Accident & Emergency, for nearly four decades. She was constantly passed over for senior positions. She regularly experienced casual prejudice and sometimes, especially in the early days, nasty and confrontational racism.
The only outward sign of her suffering constant discrimination while I was growing up was when she sensed that I might have been beginning to lack motivation in my studies. I would be rebuked with various versions of “work hard Akram, you won’t be accepted as an equal in this society unless you are twice as good as someone who is not coloured!”
I wasn’t really allowed to waiver and it instilled in me a work ethic that I have retained throughout my career.
I’ve worked with many outstanding engineers and I believe that I have learned something from all of them. One in particular is worth mentioning due to the influence he had on my approach to engineering.
I first met Afshin Forouzani when working as a senior engineer for Robert Benaim and Associates in the UK. I then worked with him again for several years in Malaysia. He was technically very strong and brought a type of relentless rigour to everything he did. He would never accept second best.
He would also never accept being treated as anything other than an equal, whoever he was speaking to. Both traits had a strong influence on me when I was in my 30’s. I made a conscious effort to integrate them into my own approach to engineering and into my career in general.
Have you experienced any type of bias in your career and if so, how were you able to handle it?
I have come across both conscious and unconscious bias in my career, but not always due to my ethnic background. In France I discovered that after becoming a senior engineer and having proved myself over a period of seven years, I was being paid less than another engineer. They had three years less experience than me and less responsibility.
The engineer in question was white and French. However, I believe that the bias was based more on the fact that he had graduated from the same engineering school as the Director who decided on salary levels.
I had only skimmed the elite French engineering school system by doing the equivalent of a one-year Masters course. It wasn’t the same. My reaction was not to refer to it in particular, but to ask that my own salary be increased based on my own good performance.
An increase was not forthcoming and I knew that I would never be considered to be of equal value. I decided that my future lay elsewhere and I found a job with Robert Benaim and Associates in the UK.
I have been relatively lucky in that I have not experienced overt racial bias. The unconscious bias I have suffered has not actually affected my career. It has always been enough to have a civil conversation to clarify matters.
What three things would help structural engineering become truly inclusive for those in the BAME community?
I think these things would help:
This blog is part of a series written by leading Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) engineers. They share how they got into engineering, their career highlights, and their thoughts on how racial parity in engineering can be achieved. The series is part of The Institution's celebration of Black History Month (BHM).
- Having young BAME structural engineering ambassadors going into schools to talk about structural engineering. This would help to attract talent as early as possible
- The industry has invested a significant amount in trying to attract more women into the profession. The same effort must go into attracting more members of the BAME community into the profession
- Having more representatives from the BAME community in positions of leadership. This would be at IStructE itself and at some of the larger structural engineering consultancies