Tell us about how you chose structural engineering and became chartered?
I’ve always had an interest in the built environment, but I cannot say that I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a structural engineer. My first work experience was in an architect’s practice. This is where I realised I was interested in learning about the technical aspects of how these proposed shapes and forms could be constructed.
In this country we have to make choices and specialise when we are relatively young. We have little exposure to all but the most common vocations, or those of our immediate family.
At school I had no idea what I wanted to do, so chose subjects I liked. These were maths, physics and geography. They seemed to lend themselves to engineering.
I embarked on the most general 'Engineering' degree course and loosely specialised in civil and structural engineering. It was doing a few summer placements in this area that really helped me decide to join the profession.
What shaped your development?
I started with a very large company who provided great projects and sound technical training. I then went on to work for smaller companies, preferring to be part of smaller yet still diverse teams. It was through meeting others and networking that I began to see the breadth of opportunities available to structural engineers within the construction industry.
My current role is as a Design Manager. It involves coordinating the design of all disciplines in a project, not just structural engineering. I work for a main contractor who has been extremely supportive of me doing this role.
They are keen to use my structural engineering skills where necessary. In return, I have learned a huge amount about other aspects of the design and construction processes.
A willingness to talk to people, being keen to learn and knowing the limits of my knowledge have all contributed to this role being an excellent fit for me. Everyone is different, and I feel lucky to have found my place within construction. It’s an industry I love.
What role models have had a positive influence on you and your career?
A few years into my career I had a manager who demonstrated an excellent balance of technical skills and being approachable to both colleagues and clients. She understood my strengths as well as my weaknesses and offered me the ideal combination of encouragement and support.
Her mentorship and passing the Chartered Member exam in 2015 really boosted my confidence. I have since tried to emulate her admirable work ethic and common sense approach.
What have been your career highlights so far?
Like many other engineers I could talk about seeing a variety of projects finished and handed over to end users. To me this is the real day-to-day reward of working in the construction industry.
Looking beyond my project work, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to be part of the IStructE’s Council and to chair the Institution’s Young Members’ Panel. A particularly memorable achievement was co-producing the first Young Engineers Conference in 2016. It was a peer-based learning and networking opportunity so different to anything the Institution had offered before.
Receiving the Lewis Kent award for services to the Institution a couple of years later also stands out as an unexpected but gratifying career highlight.
Have you experienced any type of bias in your working career and if so, how were you able to handle it?
I have not been aware of experiencing any direct bias, conscious or otherwise. It is clear that the construction industry is not as diverse as others. I notice this much more in my current site-based role than I did in the design office. Until the relevant and numerous paths into construction and engineering attract a more balanced contingent this will not change.
I have heard it said that females in the construction industry may have more opportunities than their male counterparts. On this I would beg to differ and say that the opportunities offered are equal in quantity and magnitude. It is down to the individual to seek them out and make the most of them. I have always been keen both within companies and institutions to ‘get involved’ to a much greater extent than my role description would demand. I think there are huge benefits to be gained from this.
On the flipside, I have recently had two career breaks to raise my children. I’ll admit these have been challenging both in terms of having to leave projects unfinished and missing out on continuing professional development.
I am the first site-based person in my company to have maternity career breaks, and they have been incredibly supportive. I’ve returned to work in a way that suits me, having been offered project work that provides the stimulation and motivation to keep me learning and developing.
What three things would help structural engineering become truly inclusive?
Further research on what the barriers are to people becoming structural engineers would be the logical first step to widening the appeal of the industry. It would also be important to understand how these vary by people’s background.
Given the early age at which we make significant education and career decisions, improving awareness of all the possible routes into the profession could attract a more diverse group of people. For instance, at the age where it is possible to commit to an apprenticeship or similar, I had no idea that such things existed or provided routes to careers like structural engineering.
Keeping the Institution and industry current and relevant is also important. Events and factors beyond our immediate control are constantly changing construction and engineering. Their implications need to be acted on and addressed as soon as is practicable.