Inspiring women in structural engineering: Dr Sarah Prichard
Date published

5 March 2021

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Inspiring women in structural engineering: Dr Sarah Prichard

Date published
Date published

5 March 2021

Dr Sarah Prichard talks to us about some of the people and experiences that have shaped her career. She shares her thoughts on bias and inclusivity within our profession.

Tell us about how you chose structural engineering and became chartered?

I decided to become an engineer during my last six months at school. Until that time, I was focused on becoming a historian. Luckily the Irish education system is flexible and allowed me to do this.

I realised that engineering would allow me to combine science with something practical to create something extraordinary. I’d be able to do this while being part of a dynamic team.

I started with a general engineering degree, but then focussed on structural engineering. I was attracted by the opportunities to work with architects and other building professionals to create spaces and places that could lift the human spirit.

Whilst completing a PhD into the response of concrete to impact, I decided that academia wasn’t for me. I really wanted to ‘build’ something. I joined Buro Happold as a graduate in 2001, and I’m now the UK Managing Director. I became chartered in 2006.

What shaped your development?

I believe that I own my career. If I work hard, look for exciting opportunities and then follow them, my life will be both exciting and rewarding. As Mark Twain said, ‘you always regret what you do not do’.

This attitude sits well with that of my long-time employer Buro Happold, who have provided many opportunities and stretch assignments over the years. I have been encouraged to grow and develop, from my role as a graduate, to preparing for chartership and in the years thereafter.

A career is like a masonry wall. You build it carefully block by block and complete each course before starting the next one. This creates a firm base for the next stage of learning. In recent times, I have rooted my work in helping to shape the path of engineering consultancy towards Net Zero. I believe we all must work at creating a more sustainable future. My involvement in this has been very positive and motivating.

What role models have had a positive influence on you and your career?

My father was a strong role model for me, encouraging me to study science and engineering. He did not allow me to have career-limiting beliefs around what I could achieve as a woman.

This was a strong base on which to grow. I have been fortunate to have had many positive role models in my senior colleagues throughout my career. These include a sponsor who stretched me at key points and a line manager who taught me about leadership, coaching and mindfulness.

What have been your career highlights so far?

Without doubt, my career highlight so far has been working on the Msheireb Downtown Doha project in Qatar. I was actively involved in both its design and construction phases. Buro Happold were responsible for the design of 25 buildings. These included hotels, offices, residential blocks, a shopping mall and a mosque over a five storey basement. All have achieved either Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum or Gold.  

It is a new heart for the centre of Doha. It’s sympathetic to the local traditional architecture but has a real focus on sustainability and urban regeneration. I relocated there for three years with my family to lead the work on site.

This was an incomparable learning experience that came from living and working in a different culture. I was away from the ‘safety’ of our offices and learning to work and lead independently. From the nitty-gritty of construction to driving positive and collaborative relationships with architect, project managers and contractors, I was learning every day.

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

My time in Qatar was a challenge in this regard. While the construction managers had female colleagues and were outwardly accepting, senior women in construction in the Middle East were not usual.

In time office meetings with a male to female ratio of 20:1 became the accepted norm. Their concerns dwindled as I became a significant contributor to the project, politely making my opinions known without resorting to shouting or thumping the table.

However, I was shouted at. After a particularly tempestuous meeting with the client team, one senior manager sheepishly apologised as ‘he had never shouted at a woman before’. I smiled, inwardly chuckling, knowing that he had seen me as an engineer first and a woman second and accepted his apology graciously.  

Things were equally challenging whilst out on site. The site staff always addressed me as ‘sir’, as the default for someone in charge. The contractor’s team, whose work we supervised, understood quickly that I was as conscientious and knowledgeable as any male consultant that they had previously encountered.

I was the experienced person my colleagues referred to when issues arose. They knew I’d be happy to crawl into a reinforcement cage to inspect details for myself, particularly if it led to a swift resolution of a problem.

What three things would help structural engineering become truly inclusive?

For me the three things are:
  • Ensuring that business leaders lead in an empathetic and inclusive way. They need to call out poor behaviour and work to overcome unconscious bias. They must ensure that women, people from BAME backgrounds and other minorities are all equally visible in senior leadership and on Boards
  • Encouraging white men, who make up most of the construction industry, to act as allies and supporters for women, colleagues who are LGBTQ+, and people from the BAME communities and other minority groups. This will mean everyone can thrive in an inclusive environment
  • We need to build even more flexibility into our new working models and encourage colleagues to support and adopt new patterns of working. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s become clear that engineering consultants can work more flexibly than has ever been thought possible. This flexibility can maximise inclusivity in the profession and improve everyone’s physical and mental health


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