Game-changing women in engineering

Atkins | 23 Jun 2016 | Comments

To celebrate the UK's National Women in Engineering Day, we speak to six Atkins' women around the world about the people that inspired their own careers, and how they helped turn impossible ideas into a reality.

It is set to be a busy day on 23 June, 2016. Alongside the UK’s referendum on its membership of the European Union, it is also National Women in Engineering Day (NWED) and the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Imagination Realised awards in London, which recognise exceptional engineering ideas and expertise.

It is the third year that the Women’s Engineering Society has celebrated NWED and the role of women in the field of engineering, and for Atkins it offers another opportunity to highlight the work of thousands of women who lead our engineering efforts across the world.

Tackling the gender gap

While much progress has been made in recent years, there’s no doubt that a gender gap still persists in the sector. Recent research by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology shows that only 9% of UK engineering professionals are women compared to 18% in Spain, 26% in Sweden and 20% in Italy. Yet Atkins’ own research reveals the enormous opportunities available to women in engineering, including proven career development, the chance to lead, innovate and to travel and work overseas.

Solving the gender imbalance in engineering will not be simple. It will require the efforts of schools, universities, professional bodies, and all the companies that operate in the sector. But the benefits of greater gender parity are well documented and undeniable: greater innovation, higher returns, true job satisfaction and significant economic, human and social benefits.

Though there is still much work to be done, the following personal stories from Atkins' women across our business underline how rewarding an engineering career can be – and how vital women are in Atkins’ ongoing success. 

Farida Farag, architect and urban designer
Atkins, Middle East

Farida Farrag“I grew up in Abu Dhabi, a city where new buildings, new malls and even new islands popped up every other day. I wanted to overcome the tendency to be a passive observer and get involved.

“When one of my senior colleagues gave me the big responsibility of leading a design team and liaising with the project manager, the client and the contractor, it gave me the confidence to lead. I was fortunate to get that opportunity. Sometimes it takes someone to trust you before you trust yourself.

“I’ve seen a change of mindset during my career. Attitudes towards women on site, in particular, have changed for the better. They used to be perceived as men-only spaces, but now they are more inclusive – a place of assembly, where things come together. Technology has undoubtedly contributed to that shift, but minds have also changed.

“There is no doubt that for mid-career women, it can be a challenge if you have kids because of the long hours. However, that is an issue for both men and women. In this respect, flexibility is key, and engineering needs to catch up with other industries.

“My advice to any woman starting a career in engineering is to seek a mentor. A mentor is someone you can confide in and his or her experiences can guide you.

“Diversity is crucial. It encourages knowledge sharing, new ways of working and ultimately, greater creative output.”

Deanna Gierzak, engineer
Atkins’ energy business, North America

Deanna Gierzak“I didn’t always want to be an engineer. I was artistic and enjoyed expressing myself, but had always excelled at math and science since I was very young, and it took my dad’s encouragement to see that I could do something with that. I wasn’t sure engineering would fit with my desire to be creative, but he really inspired me to find a way to bring those two sides of my brain together.

“People tend to put women in the box marked ‘emotion’, but perpetuating that stereotype – and generally any stereotypes – is unhelpful, and that needs to change. It would be helpful to change the way subjects are presented in education. If a girl does better than a boy at school, but knows that her male counterpart will go into a career in a subject and earn more than her, what is the motivation for her?

“Currently, girls are being pushed into STEM fields – and pushed to succeed – yet statistics tend to show that they’re not equally rewarded for their successes. It would benefit everyone to abandon gender stereotypes early on, because a lot of the stereotypes we think are true of men and women (and boys and girls) are most likely due to beliefs in society that we perpetuate through education.” 

“When I was interviewing for the job, Ana Ramirez [CFO, Atkins’ Energy office in Charlotte] took me out for lunch afterwards. I felt I could talk to her about my hopes and fears about pursuing a career in engineering, and about being a woman in what is still a male-dominated industry. She completely understood where I was coming from and really motivated me, and has continued to be a source of encouragement and advice.

“In January, I was pulled onto a project that I hadn’t worked on before and was asked to jump on a call with a major client who wanted a hazard analysis within three weeks. I came up with a hazard plan myself, created a disaster table rating different categories of risk, and summarised my results in a technical report. It made me realise how important our work is, and has encouraged me to keep pushing forward.”

Janet Miller, sector director for cities and development
Atkins, UK

Janet Miller“One of my bosses, Richard Alvey, was very inspiring and drew me from the heritage sector into the urban development agenda. He enabled me to get involved in developing proposals and concepts, and that meant understanding how masterplans affect people’s lives. He made me realise that I could bring something different to the team.

“Putting together masterplans for project overseas, like the one that we’re doing in Morocco now, has been a huge leap. Recognising that I could lead those plans because I understood all angles of the project was a really pivotal moment for me.

“There is sometimes pressure to send men and women in different directions that are not always ideal: men are encouraged to develop financial understanding, while women are often pushed to collaborate and work across teams, for example.

“If a woman starting out in engineering came to me, I’d pass on some advice that I was given early on: get to know the numbers. They are what count in a private business. Collaboration is fine, but understanding the numbers is critical.

“I was advised to get a role, job title, and objectives that I could be measured against. I had become something of a firefighter in my department, which I enjoyed, but it wasn’t good for my career. Just being helpful isn’t going to help you climb the ladder. You’re in competition with men who have big projects and responsibilities, so secure a proper job.

“Working in silos doesn’t tend to lead to innovation. We innovate because society needs different things and the impact that we have at Atkins is ultimately on people and communities. The only way that we can reflect their lives and characters and innovate is by having a diverse workplace that draws from lots of different perspectives.”

Marie Lam-Frendo, associate director
Atkins Acuity, Asia Pacific

Marie Lam-Frendo“I started my engineering career as a dam designer. It was interesting, because there are no building codes, and you have to figure things out yourself. That means you push yourself to the limits which is both challenging and satisfying.

“The real challenges I encountered at the beginning of my career were because of my gender: when I was doing my master’s thesis, I was told that, as a hire, I posed a risk because I’m a woman.

“The gender gap starts at university. In my class, there were only about three women out of a total of 30. Engineering just did not appeal to a lot of women. Many view it as having a long hours culture, a male-dominated environment and are attracted to other lucrative sectors, such as finance. But education is crucial – without this, the gender gap will never close.

“Sometimes as women, we have to be assertive. Don’t be shy and ask questions. I see a lot of women doing really good work in the background, laying the foundations of a project, but when it comes to the meeting, they let the men do all the talking and take all the credit. Being a good engineer isn’t enough – you have to go beyond that. And if there is bad behaviour, call people out on it and find a way to stop it happening again.

“Diversity is so important to a company like Atkins: companies that embrace diversity tend to enjoy more growth than those that don’t, and are more likely to develop new markets. So it also makes sense from a business perspective.”

Martine Fils-Aime, transportation engineer
Atkins, North America

Martine Fils-Aime“When I was at school, I-95 [the main Interstate Highway on the East Coast of the US], was being built near my home and it really caught my attention. The whole process was fascinating. Miami is so congested, and it was amazing what they achieved – really high flyover lanes and bridges. I saw the whole thing from the beginning to end and was hooked.

“I was lucky to have Peter Kelliher as my manager, who sadly passed away in 2011. He was instrumental in shaping the office here. I worked with him for eight years on projects from when I first started in Tampa, Florida. He had a good sense of what was important, and he shaped me into the engineer that I am today.

“I remember working on a project with him that had eight bridges and a complex design to avoid negatively impacting the area. He gave me the opportunity to lead that project – and I loved it. It involved setting horizontal and vertical alignments, and dealing with property owners who were very sensitive. It was a huge job dealing with everything, and I was able to show that I was capable of designing complex solutions and delivering them.

“As engineers, all of us – men and women – have to have a broad range of perspectives, because we’re working in a people business. You have to understand people and not be swayed by your own biases or preconceptions.

“There’s no place for ignorance, so studying something that is completely separate to the engineering world is never a bad idea. I took several courses in anthropology and humanities, and it really added to my understanding of the world and other cultures.”

Yuri Chan, senior engineer
Atkins, Asia Pacific

Yuri Chan“My sister worked in engineering and she inspired me to follow this path. I thought what she was doing sounded so interesting, and it certainly didn’t sound like a routine job. Knowing that she was involved in both the design and construction elements of projects really sparked my interest.

“I was glad to have the opportunity to work in the UK upon graduation. Throughout this initial stage of my career, I was thankful that there were so many experienced and helpful seniors and colleagues who were always willing to share their invaluable experience and personal insights.

“The most important moment in my career so far has been joining Atkins in Hong Kong. It was a challenge for me as the working environments in the UK and Hong Kong are very different, but it has helped me develop and learn to adapt to change.  I am very grateful that my current manager has put so much confidence in me to lead a small team and work across a variety of projects, and I truly enjoy working in the airport team here as an engineer.  

“The perception that construction sites are dangerous and only really appropriate for men have discouraged women from pursuing a career in engineering, so improving safety will play a big part in addressing this.”  

Atkins' Chairman, Allan Cook CBE, said:

"When we celebrate women in engineering during a time of huge skills shortage, we must work together to diversify and encourage more young people, of any gender or social backgrounds to pursue engineering. As Chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering Diversity Leadership I firmly believe we need to work towards this goal. There are notable women in our industry who've shared their journey into engineering and it's important for more women to work in our industry. We should help others do the same."