In light of International Women in Engineering Day, we are proud to share insight into some of our female engineer’s careers. We had the chance to talk to Lisa Rapson, Associate Director of Infrastructure & Environment in London, Miriam Spatafora, a Structures Engineer in London and Sophie McCabe, a Principal Engineer within our Infrastructure & Environment team in London and this is what she had to say:
Lisa Rapson on International Women in Engineering Day
“A career in engineering is a great challenge, very rewarding, and the industry is full of interesting people - I personally wouldn’t want to do anything else”
We will spend the vast majority of our lives at work and I wanted a career to keep me challenged and constantly learning, offering variety and versatility, and engineering certainly does that. What greater reward is there than to see our efforts in the form of a building or road, which ultimately plays a key part of the community for many years to come? As an Engineer, we are creating a legacy.
Like many people, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I left school but I was good at Maths and Science and so wanted to play to my strengths. I had the opportunity as a teenager to spend a year on a Youth Training Scheme and I chose engineering, spending a year in a laboratory testing materials used in the construction industry. After that, I undertook an Apprenticeship for 4 years which I thoroughly enjoyed it and from that point I knew that engineering was the industry for me.
I entered into engineering in the early 80’s and wasn’t sure what to expect, but I found that I was in the minority. In fact, there were no women in engineering within my particular area, but as I was starting out a few female Graduates started to come on board. Over the years, the numbers have grown, which is great to see.
Although the industry is challenging, there is no denying that historically (and certainly at the time I started) it was a very male dominated environment. The real challenge, certainly for me, was to be recognised by my male colleagues as an Engineer, to earn their respect and to attain credibility within my chosen profession.
A defining moment within my career was the year I spent in Bahrain building an island. It was to be built in two stages, each stage was 1.5 x 4.5 km in area, and when I arrived only the Southern most edge had been constructed. The project needed some co-ordination to pull it all together and this was the role that I performed.
Throughout the scheme I worked with various design disciplines across many global locations with different time zones, working with a challenging middle eastern client and US contractor on site. As you may imagine, these were three very diverse cultures to become accustomed to. By the time we had delivered the Phase 1 reclamation works and secured Phase 2, I had earnt the respect of my middle eastern client and their Project Managers, which is an achievement I will always take with me.
I previously mentioned that, in my early career, pursuing a career in engineering as a women was rare. When I used to attend meetings, it was generally thought that I would be seen and not heard, that I was there to take notes on the discussion. However, nowadays I feel that when I do attend meetings, even when I am not very vocal, the audience are keen to listen to my contributions, which is great and makes me feel that people believe I have something to offer. How things change.
I am always excited to go into work and start a new day. I know every day is different; no two days are the same, I do not know what project I will be involved in next and I never know who I shall meet. Engineering is a journey into the unknown, a challenge and a learning experience. The ultimate prize is the achievement of delivering a project and knowing the role it will play in people’s daily lives.
I feel there are a lot of people that do not really understand what engineering is about, what the industry stands for and what it can offer them as individuals or to our communities. It’s the platform to a way of life. International Women in Engineering Day is a great forum to spread the message across an international stage and to reach all walks of life. I have attended a few events for Women in Engineering and was pleasantly surprised to see how many of our male colleagues supported this initiative.
I would say the same thing to any man or woman who is considering a career in engineering - it’s a great challenge, it’s very rewarding, and is an industry full of interesting people with different cultures that give you a different perspective on both the profession and life. I personally wouldn’t want to do anything else.
Miriam Spatafora on International Women in Engineering Day
“When I finally found myself in the real working world after University, I had no doubt that engineering was my destiny”
When I was a little girl, my father used to involve my brother and I in playing with LEGO and building blocks, as well as letting us do all sorts of manual DIY tasks around the house like creating small electrical circuits. I have very good memories of this which I’m sure played a part in my career choice. Despite having a strong love of Literature and Arts, I surprised everyone when I picked Engineering at University.
I loved studying Physics and so, at 18 years old, I felt that I could make my contribution to the world as an Engineer and help to add something to our environment, working in harmony with nature and building things that last. When I finally found myself in the real working world after University, with live projects and surrounded by highly skilled professionals, I had no doubt that engineering was my destiny. Using my creativity, my ingenuity and my sensitivity to build a better environment for people.
I originally had concerns about practicing engineering, firstly because I was worried I wouldn’t end up enjoying it after all those years of studying and secondly because I thought my mixed background of Architectural Engineering and Sustainable Architecture studies would not fit in. However, I found that being an Engineer required more creativity than I had thought and my artistic oriented skills worked to my advantage.
Engineering is a continuously evolving field. There are new challenges every day and I am always learning new things, reading journals and papers, keeping myself interested and motivated, in addition to adapting to new situations and keeping track of new development methods. I recently worked on a project which involved challenging deadlines, allowing me the opportunity to increase my responsibilities and expectations from my team and external professionals. Stepping out of my comfort zone taught me to become more confident and assertive, letting me build good relationships based on professionalism and reliability, which are key aspects in the consultancy engineering market.
There is a sort of epiphany or defining moment when I see my designs being built on site. I get this buzz, take a picture and send it to my loved ones. It is very rewarding to know that you are contributing to something much bigger than yourself and I am so eager to get more and more involved in this.
I would encourage women to undertake a career in engineering because it requires our passion, creativity, dedication and practical sense. There can be misconceptions and prejudices, but I would say to them to pursue their goals regardless of these because engineering is a highly rewarding career and has a broad field of applications so everyone can find the path that best suits them.
There were occasions where I was told “you are smart to be a girl” or “you look so delicate, it’s so surprising you are an Engineer” and it made me realise that prejudice is very much still alive. However, it does fill me with a lot of hope and pride when I see campaigns which are promoting equality between genders in the workplace. Children of the new generations already seem to be more inclined to respect each other without prejudices.
Recently, I have been involved in the Constructionarium experience with the students at UCL, and I proudly realised it was highly female populated. These young students are passionate and interested with a huge drive and determination to think outside of the box. I am sure some of them will make wonderful professionals in the construction industry.
Similarly, Women in Engineering Day gives us another perception of how important it is to raise the awareness of women within the industry. I feel this is a good moment to share with our colleagues, as well as students, because there are many opportunities within this industry which can come across as highly populated by men. It is good to keep in mind that women are not the exception in engineering, there is a whole community of talented professionals and a series of activities and initiatives to promote their influence in this field. Women in Engineering Day can be an inspiring moment of growth for both men and women, now and for those to come.
Engineer comes from the Latin ‘ingenium’ which entails the capability to detect, analyse and solve problems. I think this is the kind of job you never get bored of and I feel proud doing what I do - I love having enthusiasm for my job and am eager to learn every single day!
Sophie McCabe on International Women in Engineering Day
“It is such a varied and diverse industry, filled with exciting opportunities and rewards - there is a niche for everyone”
I haven’t come into the industry with the traditional background of an engineering degree, but do not feel this has held me back. I undertook a combined honours in Geography, Planning and Architecture at University, which is where my interest in the industry began. My dissertation focussed on space and place, and how the built environment could engender (or ideally alleviate) people’s sense of fear. Based on this experience, I wanted to get involved in the construction industry and have a sense that something tangible was being built with my input. Combining engineering with flood risk made use of my background knowledge (both physical and human elements), and seemed the perfect balance.
I didn’t always plan to work in this industry but through my experiences and based on my areas of knowledge, this was a very exciting opportunity to explore. Engineering has been much more than I expected, with a variety of projects keeping it interesting, and I have now been working at Waterman for 10 years – it has flown by!
Earlier in my career I was conscious of being a woman in a male dominated role, particularly in client meetings when I would often be the only woman. However, I have overcome this with greater confidence as my career has progressed. I feel that the dynamics are changing, with more female clients then there have been in the past, which can only be a positive. Hopefully this will encourage woman to pursue a career in the construction industry.
My new challenge, having just returned to work following maternity leave, is to balance my work and home life. It is important for me to continue progressing within my career however, I am also conscious that I want to be around for my young daughter. Waterman have been very supportive in allowing flexibility for me to work from home, proving very accommodating to mothers returning to work, and it makes the transition so much easier to manage.
One of the rewarding moments of my career is my work on Westgate, a large mixed-use retail scheme in Oxford. It is a project I began working on as a Graduate over 10 years ago and have since taken on a heavy involvement in the planning applications, discharge of conditions and construction. The scheme had many challenges in relation to flood risk, and I attended the planning committee meetings to take questions from both the public and committee members. I developed good relationships with the Environment Agency and the planners over this period, building trust which led to a smooth transition through planning and an overall successful scheme.
I am very excited that construction is now in full swing. The shopping centre is due to open later this year, for which I am definitely planning a trip. Seeing it being constructed makes all the effort worthwhile!
Seeing buildings being constructed and then occupied is the most exciting part for me about my job, seeing something tangible that you can legitimately say ‘I had a hand in that’. If I pass Waterman schemes I can’t help but point them out. I’m not sure my friends are equally interested…. but it fills me with a great sense of pride.
I feel that men are generally better than women at shouting about their accomplishments and therefore, those not currently in the industry can get the impression that only men can succeed. International Women in Engineering Day highlights that woman are involved at all levels and disciplines within engineering, and more importantly that they are successful and enjoying their jobs.
It seems a general belief that engineering can be considered heavily maths dependant, with a large focus on calculations and being stuck at a desk all day. Although design / calculations do form a strong basis for our work, engineering is so much more than that; involving problem solving, ingenuity, face to face negotiations, client meetings, meeting the public and site visits etc.
The interesting thing about engineering is that you can learn something new every day. There are always new policies or standards being published and software updates / new products being brought to the market. As a profession, I feel it has changed greatly in comparison to when I began – it keeps you on your toes.
For anyone considering a career in engineering, I would say “do it”! It is such a varied and diverse industry, filled with exciting opportunities and rewards - there is a niche for everyone.