BAME Role Models 2020: Tony Gibbs
Date published

20 October 2020

The Institution of Structural Engineers The Institution of Structural Engineers
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BAME Role Models 2020: Tony Gibbs

Date published
Date published

20 October 2020

In this piece Tony Gibbs reflects on a career that has spanned the globe. He answers our questions and shares his views on bias and inclusivity.

How did you become a structural engineer?

On 22 September 1955, my island of Grenada was devastated by Hurricane Janet. I was in the final year of sixth form studying Latin, history and geography. In the aftermath of the hurricane, I decided I wanted to contribute to improving design and construction standards in the face of the natural hazards that are prevalent in the Caribbean.

I spent an extra year in school doing additional A-levels in maths and physics. This was so I could study civil engineering at university. I spent an enjoyable four years at The Queen’s University of Belfast for my first degree before returning to the West Indies.

My first job was with the architect-engineer consultancy of Norman & Dawbarn. I worked under Fred Stolberger on the new Faculty of Engineering campus of The University of the West Indies in Trinidad.

I then returned to the UK and joined Arup on the Barbican project team led by Jack Waller – who would later become IStructE President.

During this time, I took a year off from Arup to pursue post-graduate studies in concrete technology at the University of Leeds. On my return to Arup I worked in Povl Ahm’s group on some interesting projects including the State Mosque of Seremban in Malaysia.

I returned to the Caribbean in 1965 and worked with Caribbean Construction Company (Kier in Jamaica) on the construction of large concrete shell structures. My next move was to join the consulting firm of David Key & Partners (now Consulting Engineers Partnership Ltd) to manage the Barbados office. It was in that period that I sat and passed my IStructE Membership Part 3 examination (now the Chartered Membership Exam) in 1969.

For 30 years I headed a consulting office which made me into a workaholic.

Much of my recent work has been associated with the healthcare sector, making hospitals safe from hurricanes and earthquakes. I have been involved with vulnerability assessments, retrofitting, training, writing design guides and standards development. That work has taken me to many countries – China, Oman, Egypt, Tunisia, Kosovo and all over the Caribbean and Central America. For these opportunities I must thank the Pan American Health Organisation and Dr Dana van Alphen in particular.

What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

My favourite project is by no means my largest, most complex or best known. It is the design of the Roseau Public Market in Dominica. It is an elegant structure with no frills. The form of design and construction was chosen on the basis of very low capital cost.

Although it is located close to the ocean, it has required very little maintenance in its 50-year life. During that time it rode through two devastating hurricanes, David in 1979 and Maria in 2017, with no damage.

Have you experienced any type of bias in your career and if so, how were you able to handle it?

I do not consider that my mixed race has had a dominant effect on my career. It has had some effects from time to time, but not so much as to direct the course of my career. I have had employment as an engineer in Trinidad & Tobago, England, Jamaica and Barbados. I have also been engaged as a short-term consultant in many different societies around the world.

I should point out that in my native country of Grenada, society is comprised of a diverse mix of people of various origins. People’s race or ethnicity doesn’t factor into the equation when forming relationships or during casual interactions.

This makes it a bit difficult for me to attribute any unfavourable action against me to racial prejudice. My first thought is not that race is the motive. Ironically, it is only in my present country of residence, Barbados, that I have noticed a negative impact on my career because of my race.

What three things would help structural engineering become truly inclusive for those in the BAME community?

Engineering is no different to many other walks of life as far as racial parity is concerned. If the opportunities for education, training and work are made less conditioned or subconsciously affected by race, this would be a big step in the right direction.

There has been a noticeable increase in the numbers of BAME people in engineering and in managerial positions in engineering. In the Caribbean, engineering is increasingly seen as a viable alternative to law and medicine. The advantage of law and medicine for BAME people has been the opportunity to earn a living without reliance on the corporate sector.

The importance of engineering to the development of Commonwealth Caribbean countries is not yet sufficiently recognised by the wider society. This must be addressed principally by the engineering profession itself.  

BAME engineers can help to bring about change by realising that they must put in an effort over and above that required by other engineers.

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.


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