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A world of opportunity

Atkins | 23 Jun 2015 | Comments

Inspirational women from Atkins are working on some of the world’s most exciting projects from tunnels in Hong Kong to master planning in Oman, and they hope that their experiences will encourage more young women to consider a career in engineering.

Historically women have been a minority in the engineering sectors but a variety of campaigns and initiatives are seeking to increase the proportion of females in the industry as global demand for infrastructure puts pressure on skills. At the same time companies such as Atkins are working hard to find and retain talented women to enable a diversity of thinking and approach within the company. However a lack of awareness about the opportunities in the industry is widely regarded as a critical issue and women from around the Atkins’ regions are keen to highlight the advantages of working in engineering and infrastructure. “The best thing about working in this industry is the variety, every project has different issues and stakeholders, it’s always exciting, ” says Dalal Darwish, social development consultant in Oman for Atkins in the Middle East. A biology graduate, Dalal joined Atkins in 2008. “I really wanted to join Atkins because of its reputation and its international span. I wanted to work on bigger projects and here my opportunities are broad,” she says explaining that she has been able to work with teams on projects across the Middle East.

As part of the masterplanning team Dalal spends her time working with stakeholders to understand the complex issues affecting projects supported by a multidisciplinary team conducting a range of technical studies and impact assessments. Although she did not originally set out to enter the engineering sector the opportunities drew her in to an industry which in Oman is highly respected. “In Oman engineering is very impressive. I didn’t have much experience in the sector before joining but now I am blessed because I have found my niche.”

One of the challenges for consultants in Oman and other Middle Eastern countries is to draw women engineers into the private sector. Traditionally public bodies have been the key employers and although salaries tend to be lower the hours are shorter which can be a benefit in terms of achieving a happy work-life balance. But Dalal says that the benefits of working for Atkins far outweigh this. “Atkins has been very flexible and I’d like to encourage other ladies to come into the sector. I have learned a lot and I would say that people in the public sector haven’t had the same opportunities and exposure to projects.”

Another Atkins’ engineer to benefit from the flexible working policies is Tiffany Chan, associate director for tunnelling at Atkins in Hong Kong. “I joined Atkins after graduation and I have stayed here for 15 years!” she says explaining that the incredible breadth of projects, challenging work, the team environment and flexibility on offer are all behind her decision to remain with the company. This year Tiffany will take a second maternity break. “In Hong Kong maternity leave depends on your company and Atkins is very good with that.”

Today Tiffany’s work varies between leading the design team for a range of tunnelling schemes and managing projects. “Dealing with the underground space is different every time, anything can happen,” she says. From working with some of the world’s largest tunnel boring machines at 17m in diameter to blasting into the rock of Hong Kong to create new transport corridors, Tiffany finds herself with an array of technical problems to solve. As a student who chose engineering because she loved maths and physics and wanted to do something practical to benefit daily life, there could not be a more fulfilling role.

However, being a female engineer in tunnelling is not without its challenges including a historic superstition that women in tunnels bring bad luck. Ten years ago Tiffany encountered a situation where a contractor asked her to remain outside a tunnel as male engineers went inside. Fortunately she says that attitudes have changed a lot since then, helped by engineering societies in Hong Kong who have been promoting the image of the industry in society. “There are more women coming into the industry. Recently when we interviewed graduates this year we found more females and when you ask about course numbers there are 30 or 40 percent female students, compared to 10 percent when I was at university.”

This trend is also being seen in the UK with rising numbers of female graduates joining Atkins. In fact 25 percent of graduates in the 2014 intake were women, an increase on 2013, and early estimates suggest that figures for 2015 will be significantly higher again. This compares to figures from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) that show that only 6 percent of the UK’s engineering workforce is female. The IET also says that despite calls from government to raise this 43 percent of companies are failing to take specific action to improve diversity. In a recent debate in the House of Lords however, Atkins was recognised for its positive action by Baroness Wall of New Barnet who pointed to a range of measures at the firm including support for women returning to work following maternity or carers leave, the women’s professional network and the women’s leadership council which guide women and act as role models and mentors.

Lesley Waud is a civil engineer and market director for strategic highways in Atkins’ UK transportation business. She says that measures such as this are improving the retention rate of women in the industry, something that is much needed. “I work with a peer group of senior consultants on a big framework and I am the only female representative,” she says. But she expects this to change and notes that there are many capable female technical experts rising up through the business. “What is different today is that we are retaining women. I look at the fact that we offer term time contracts and flexible working if needed. It is a lot easier for a woman to come back to work and make it fit.”

Lesley notes that one of the issues for women at a senior level is a lack of role models – she has only ever had one female boss. But as retention rises this will improve and Lesley is proactive about promoting the profession taking time to visit schools and share her insights.

Another of Atkins’ most senior female engineers, North America based Terry Suehr also encourages female students to become engineers. “I visited a school where the staff asked women to come in and be mentors for young girls who may never have thought of engineering,” says Terry who is both technical director for civil engineering at Atkins in North America and business change leader. She says that she too has benefited from having female mentors. “One to one reach out to women is very helpful. For me it was so beneficial. I had male mentors which who were fantastic but occasionally you want a female perspective because women think differently.”

Before joining the consulting industry Terry spent five years in the US Coastguard, having had her civil engineering degree sponsored by the military. “By the third or fourth year I realised that I was missing something. I really liked the intellectual pursuit of my degree and I realised that I was missing that and so decided to go in to industry.”

Making the link between intellectual challenge and practical application is one of the key aspects that appeals to many engineers including Eva Rindom, managing director of 400 employees within Atkins in Denmark. Winner of a prestigious Danish Society of Engineers award in May this year, Eva is the only female MD among the largest Danish consultancies and she came into the profession following a PhD in mathematical modelling of vehicle dynamics. “I liked maths and I started out on a scientific basis with the PhD but I also learned that I wanted to work with people. It is difficult to say what have been the best things about my role because there is a world of opportunity as an engineer. It is exciting to be able to solve problems that are visible in society.”

And society will always have problems to solve and highlighting the how engineering can play its part is paramount. “People will always need homes, transport systems, power and sanitation,” says Olivia Plunkett, assistant engineer in the water and environment team at Atkins in the UK. “As a civil engineer you get to improve the standard of living for people here and abroad. The work itself can be really rewarding,” she says.

Olivia recently completed the Atkins’ graduate programme and like Dalal says that the variety is the best part of the job. “A typical day really varies which is why I like engineering. I can be working on highways and drainage design, heading to technical team meetings, working with clients on how our design fits in with their aspirations or I could be out on site checking on the progress of work.”

Whether in the Middle East, North America, Europe or Asia Pacific there are many things that the roles of Atkins’ women technical experts have in common from the variety of work, to diverse and major project opportunities, complemented by a flexible working environment. It is not surprising then to hear that all of these inspirational women would like to encourage others into the sector. “It is always exciting. I meet new people and face new challenges and I would like to encourage other ladies into the sector. Don’t hesitate!” says Dalal.

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