3, 2, 1…Go! Women in Engineering is our second in-depth article from our Talent Conversations series– capturing career stories and experiences from professional people across a range of different sectors. Our aim is to provide lessons from industry, a real-world perspective and authentic personal insights into our daily working lives.
“When I speak about STEM to young women, I explain that they are using the elegance of maths to help humans stay on the planet”, says Clare Wildfire, global practice leader for cities at Mott MacDonald.
“I also make these three points that I think make the knock-out business case for engineering:
1. The variety in your career will be endless and you will never do exactly the same thing twice
2. You will be intellectually challenged – and learn – on a daily basis
3. The range of different people you will meet is extraordinary.”
Readers, how could we be anything but excited to hear this?
As someone with very little technical skill, I have always been in awe of colleagues and friends who spend their lives making a real, physical impact on the world and producing something visible. Here I am with my words and ideas and these women make tangible, magnificent solutions like bridges and railway networks, develop sustainable architecture and earthquake-proof our cities.
I’m with three women from global engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald, talking shop. I’m here to find out what their working lives are like, to explore the ups and downs of working in an industry that is still quite male-dominated, and what their advice is to other women in the STEM fields.
What’s clear from the outset is that each of these women loves her work. Ruth has been at Mott MacDonald for three years and currently works in the electrification team on the Northern Powerhouse Rail project. Level-headed and articulate, she is realistic about some of the challenges for women in her industry.
“For the first 2 two and half years of my career I didn’t work on a project with other female staff, so I just didn’t get the chance to see how other women approached their work” says Ruth.
“Whilst working on Northern Powerhouse Rail there are not just senior women leaders to serve as role models, there are also senior female clients and decision makers. Spending time working alongside them has made a huge difference for me today.”
Dr Barnali Ghosh is a technical director at Mott MacDonald. Her thought leadership and expertise in geotechnical engineering has led to opportunities to speak, lecture and mentor. She echoes the reality that women are still a minority in the technical professions.
“I was told when I was studying, that as a woman you will always need to work doubly hard to prove yourself.”
Barnali shared a story about a recent presentation she gave on her field of expertise. She was overseas sharing an innovative solution to a complex sustainability issue and the audience was exclusively male.
Despite her expertise, Barnali described the first 20 minutes of the presentation as ‘a bit of a rough ride’, until one of the most senior leaders in the room suddenly spoke up.
“He turned to his colleagues and said three simple words…“She is right”. With that, the whole atmosphere in the room changed.”
Mott MacDonald has been working hard over the last three years to challenge and address unconscious bias across all protected characteristics in the UK Equality Act 2010.
This work has been championed and endorsed by senior leadership who recognise that having more women in engineering can be a game-changer. With the business case made clear, opportunities arose to set out metrics to measure progress. Mott MacDonald has taken a top-down and bottom-up approach. All board members have been through unconscious bias training and the Skills UK course offers women in the industry a very practical toolkit, alongside access to mentors both within the firm and across a wider network in the sector.
Clare, who leads many of these initiatives in her role as chair of the Advance equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) employee network, is pleased with progress but continues to be disappointed by some of the stories she hears about the casual, and at times inappropriate, remarks made in the industry.
“Emails can still start with ‘Dear Gents’. You read that and your heart sinks. You feel that the email chain did not consider you worthy of a mention or a thought.”
These ‘micro-aggressions’ are a commonly reported experience where behaviours have the often-unintentional consequence of excluding a minority group. I hear about them across all industries and sectors and for several groups.
Yet Clare has used this kind of dispiriting experience to raise awareness and start the conversation.
“I discovered that the feeling of isolation is actually akin to being in physical pain. When I have explained that to male colleagues, it has really hit home and helped them to become more conscious.”
The upside of being in a minority group is the sheer joy that the women experience when they come together in industry-wide events and through networking.
Barnali described with relish the experience of attending a recent Women in Engineering workshop in Oxford.
“A room full of highly skilled women exploring diverse subjects like space mechanics, material processing, offshore windfarm designs! It was wonderful to be there and very empowering, just to realise we women are out there and doing fantastic work.”
Clare described some of the natural advantages women can bring to the engineering world.
“You can learn the knowledge and technical side, but that isn’t the whole picture in an engineering career. Women can have a more intuitive understanding of what makes people tick, we are often better at reading body language. This can be a key skill for us, the ability to make every stakeholder around the table feel included, encouraged and heard.”
Conversely, Clare shares that:
“speaking up, saying what I need to say, with confidence and in a punchy way”, to a table of ten men, is a learned skill and one she is continually refining.
“I’ve learned through practice, to crystalise what I want to say and have it land with gravitas.”
Ruth echoes the importance of being concise and insightful, sharing how much she has learned from the role modelling of senior women in engineering.
“I watched and learned as the woman chairing a recent meeting very deliberately chose her seat, in full sight of the key influencer she needed to bring alongside,” she tells us.
“That astute confidence was impressive and earned the respect of others, of all genders.”
As a young woman in the industry, Ruth acknowledges
“if you know that there is a gendered game to be played, in terms of how you come across and how you present your ideas, then you are already ahead of most.”
The conversation moves round to having a family. Clare and Barnali both expressed the importance of role modelling the possibility of having a fulfilling engineering career without compromising on the importance of family.
“I think the ‘you can have it all and give 100% in both arenas myth really needs busting”, says Clare. The reality is you can’t give 100% on both fronts when your children are young. The reality is also that 70% is fine.”
“You can’t expect to be on the same career path when you have small kids”, agrees Barnali, “but the great thing is, that when you are ready, you can come back into the arena and make a real impact.”
All three women are clear that education and advocacy for women in engineering must continue.
And while there is still work to be done to improve things in many sectors, all three clearly delight in using their bright, sharp and capable minds to solve some very interesting technical problems.
“Sometimes you get a problem you think is impossible to solve but you just have to dive right in and find a way through,” laughs Barnali.
It is clear this work is deeply satisfying and creative.
There is definite progress in engineering that can be seen through the generations though…Clare’s career advice from her physics teacher was
“You girls will end up as secretaries but this subject will be great on your CV!”
We all make sounds of horror at this… and then Clare describes a recent conversation about future jobs that she had with her son when he was young, where, when asked if he would like a career in a similar field to his mum, he replied,
“Pssshhhh, only girls become engineers!!”
Many thanks to these female engineers and the team at Mott MacDonald for this interview. For more information on careers at Mott MacDonald please visit www.mottmac.com.
Find out about EDI at Mott MacDonald here.
Find out more about the Advance network here.
To find out more about our work to equip businesses to keep and empower their best female talent through timely career conversations and quality career plans, please visit www.ericasosna.com.
Name: Ruth Shevelan
Role: Assistant OLE engineer
Time in Engineering: 2 ½ years
Homeschooled until 16, Sixth form for A-Level Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Sports Science.
A Masters in Mechanical Engineering from Manchester.
How Ruth chose Engineering:
“My physics teacher said I should do something I love doing. And the appeal of the flexible working hours at Mott MacDonald that allow me to train as a Great Britain athlete.”
Name: Dr Barnali Ghosh
Role: Technical director
Time in Engineering: 19 years
Born in Bihar, India at a time when engineering education for girls was not the usual choice. Graduated in civil engineering with a Masters in Geotechnical Engineering from India. She was offered a scholarship to pursue PhD at Cambridge University in 2000, with a focus on earthquake engineering.
How Barnali chose Engineering:
“Where I grew up, natural hazards were a real and significant threat to life. I was driven to find a way to find a scientific solution to these problems.”
Name: Clare Wildfire
Role: Global practice leader for cities
Time in Engineering: 29 years
BA Degree in Maths from Cambridge. First job was in the first hires launching The Independent Newspaper. A role in a building services company put her on the engineering path.
How Clare chose Engineering:
“I was mentored and talent spotted early by a progressive leader. The first company I worked at knew that women make excellent engineers. They celebrated my difference and my career took off from there.”