I attended the ICE (Institution of Civil Engineering) West Midlands awards dinner recently as I listened to all the wonderful engineering feats that had been delivered over the last 12 months I started to ponder on my own career and what I’d learnt.
I graduated from Queens in Belfast; one of just four women in a class of 72. Even those statistics never made me think this wasn’t a typical career choice for a woman! I suppose that is one of my strengths; I don’t accept other peoples’ preconceived ideas or negative attitudes; I make up my own mind based on the facts.
What attracted me to Civil Engineering?
· I’ve always loved puzzles! (problem solving)
· I get bored easily and civil engineering offers a vast variety from on-site work, the office environment, different working locations and type of project
· Transferable skills to other professions and sectors – just in case!
Has it lived up to this vision? – you bet!
I’m nothing special but I am a Fellow of both the CIOB and ICE and I have been awarded an OBE for services to the construction industry. How? Because I’ve grasped every opportunity presented to me and have never been afraid to ask for help when I’ve needed it.
Starting as a graduate engineer for a small civil/structural practice in Northern Ireland, within four years I found myself the Resident Engineer on a major culvert infill scheme through the centre of Belfast at the height of the troubles. A partner in the practice had done the design. However when I got out on-site the contractor, pipe manufacturer and I came up with an totally different solution which was quicker, cheaper and much easier to construct. I suppose now we would call it collaboration and innovation but back then I just thought it was common sense.
I then moved ‘across the water’ to Swindon as a site engineer for Tarmac Construction on the largest computer centre outside Silicon Valley. As we were getting towards the end of the job; I was now section engineer on the main computer suite; and my powder coated handrail manufacture was going through a personal meltdown. I had no process or procedure to follow and I certainly wasn’t going to ask the project manager what to do! I decided I had two choices, have my own contractual meltdown or take control. I decided on the latter and worked with the lads in the factory to come up with a schedule so they could fulfill all the orders they had, not just what I needed. When the factory owner regained control he was extremely thankful for what I’d done which had helped keep him in business. It also meant when I needed a rush job done twelve months later, then bend over backwards to deliver it for me. For me, the learning was that there isn’t always a manual to follow and sometimes you just have to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in but if you all pull together anything is possible.
Another key milestone in my career was when I was appointed Director of the Government’s Construction Best Practice programme. At the time I had a two-year-old son, was living in Market Drayton and the job was based in London which meant commuting from Crewe. But the sound of the job excited me and eventually my boss agreed to second me. As I knew the job would entail a lot of presentations I also convinced him to pay for someone to one presentation skills training as I knew this was not my strong point. Over the next five years I discovered that audiences, whether it’s three or 3,000 people, are only human; you need to breath and the more presentations you do the easier it becomes. I also learnt from my time there that you can share all the best practice details you want with an organisation but their ability to implement them is entirely down to their own organisational culture and behaviours.
Throughout my entire career the one key thing I can honestly say is that being a woman in a so called ‘male’ industry has never once crossed my mind! My aptitude for maths and science started me on my career path but it is my desire to continually learn, work with people and being prepared to push myself outside my comfort zone that has made it what it is. I’m still learning, still being challenged and still enjoying it!