A woman's world: advice for women in architecture, construction, engineering and surveying
Here at TARGETjobs we often get to talk to successful female construction, engineering, surveying and architectural professionals: from graduate- to director-level. Much of their advice is useful for any student interested in a built environment career, but often those who identify as female find them particularly helpful. We share some below. Some contributions are anonymised from a ‘women in the built environment’ event run by Nottingham Trent University; others are on the record and given to us for targetjobs.co.uk, the TARGETjobs publications and The Guardian UK 300.
Why make this advice available? Because gender is an issue in the built environment, which is still male-dominated: ’If I reflect back on my early career there was a lot of ”stuff” that I had to put up with as a woman in engineering.’ Helen Samuels, infrastructure projects engineering director at Network Rail and one of the top 50 most influential UK female engineers in 2016, told The Guardian UK 300. ‘At the time it was the norm and I didn’t realise how inappropriate some of it was, but I’m really proud of how far the engineering industry has come, Research has been carried out that shows diverse workplaces are more effective and, although the engineering sector still has a way to go, we’ve moved on massively in terms of how female engineers are treated.’
Get your construction career off to a great start: network even as a student
Networking isn’t only for those in work. While on her graduate programme, Georgina Naish, a technical (architectural) graduate at Barratt Developments, co-founded Built by Both, a networking initiative to encourage more women into careers in the built environment. ‘As a student I thought that I didn’t need to worry about networking until I got a job, but I’ve learned through Built by Both how useful networking can be for students,’ she told The Guardian UK 300.
Going to a specially organised careers event can be a non-scary way into networking and a number of organisations now run female-specific networking events: the TARGETjobs Future Female Engineers event, for example. Anna Louise Wylie, assistant digital engineer at Laing O’Rourke, attended as a student. She says, ‘Opportunities like the Future Female Engineers event are fantastic, as they provide a network of contacts, role models and lessons learned. It isn’t easy to find support or experience of engineering, but these events can provide opportunities for discussion, learning and guidance.’
It is also worth checking with your university department, careers service or professional bodies to see if they run or know of similar events.
When on the job, don’t be afraid to tell people what to do
A number of female professionals at the Nottingham Trent University women in the built environment event who were in their first or second jobs admitted to feeling apprehensive initially about supervising or giving direction, especially to teams on site. This is a fear shared by male graduates too, but the professionals observed that the male graduates on their teams appeared to be more comfortable ‘blagging it’, while the female graduates were concerned with making sure that everything was ‘perfect’. How to overcome this? The best way to earn respect is to do your job. Ask questions and, if you need time to check details before giving instructions, do so.
It’s OK if you don’t know the answer
At the Nottingham Trent event, one of the civil engineers working at a consultancy shared how at first she felt obligated to give an answer straight away when faced with a query from a contractor. With support, she learned that it was completely acceptable for her to say ‘I’ll get back to you’ and call them back once she’d verified the information. In fact, she feels that the contractors respect her more now – they may not get instant answers, but they know they’ll get the correct ones.
When Claudia Philps was an assistant track maintenance engineer at Network Rail, she reflected similarly in a previous edition of The Guardian UK 300: ‘I’m female in a male-dominated environment and, while I have always been treated with respect, it is something I am aware of. In track maintenance it is also challenging being a graduate rather than an employee who has earned their stripes through the ranks. That’s where my personal skills come in: being friendly and willing to ask “silly” questions, not being afraid to say I don’t know the answer, and being open about my strengths and weaknesses.’
Know your worth in the construction industry and ask for a pay rise
It’s often repeated in the media that, in general, women are more reticent than men when it comes to asking for a salary increase – this perception was shared by the professionals at the Nottingham Trent event. One professional explained how she had to gear herself up to ask for a pay rise. Although nervous, she got it. She asked at the end of a positive appraisal meeting and, in fact, negotiated more money than the salary rise she was initially offered. The moral of the story: if you don’t ask, you don’t get (just choose your moment).
Own your construction and engineering career
Most graduates find that they’re given a lot of support of gain their professional qualifications, but word from the professionals at the Nottingham Trent event was that you must take a proactive interest in your own progress rather than relying on your mentor or employer. Keep fully aware of the competencies you still need to develop and discuss with your manager ways of achieving them.
Another way of taking ownership of your career is to take on new challenges in the aim of learning – one of the graduates at the Nottingham Trent event said she was unsure of one of her rotations to begin with, but came to appreciate how the different experience would benefit her career. Helen Samuels has felt similarly. ‘During my career there have been times when I’ve felt the need to make a courageous career move,’ she said. ‘Moving outside of my comfort zone was a risk, as things may or may not have gone well, but I knew that I would learn from it either way.’ Helen’s career has taken her from engineering consultancies to the public sector to utilities companies to Network Rail.
Find time to reflect on what you want to do, based around your personal life and your priorities. Helen did so: ‘Both times when I’ve had children, being on maternity leave allowed me to think about what I wanted to do. I had my first son, Archie, in 1996 and when I returned to work again I moved to the Environment Agency; after my second son, Douglas, was born in 1998 I joined Halcro w in a project management position. Rather than limiting my career (as some mothers can fear), having children kept me motivated and moved me to new things.’
Have the courage to go for promotions
Sometimes you may need to put yourself forward to get yourself noticed. ’While at Halcrow a director-level position opened up, which was, at the time, three grades above my position,’ says Helen. ‘Looking at the job listing, I thought “I could do that” and so decided to apply,’ she said. ‘I didn’t get it, but I did come a close second; by being brave and sticking my head above the wall I caught the attention of senior people in the company, which resulted in me eventually being promoted to a position where I was in charge of the company’s water sector for a year in Australia.’ Later, she was headhunted by Network Rail.