A woman's world: advice for women in architecture, construction, engineering and surveying

Last updated: 21 Jun 2023, 15:37

'Speak up', 'own your career progression' and 'forget about perfection' are just some of the pieces of advice for female students and graduates in the construction and engineering industries that targetjobs has heard over the years.

advice for women in architecture

Male graduates appear to be more comfortable 'blagging it' than female graduates.

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 and the UK 300 publication.

Get your construction career off to a great start: network even as a student

Networking isn’t only for those in work. Charlotte Jeffrey, a graduate mechanical engineer in AECOM’s building services team, told the UK 300 how she gained a mentor through her university’s scheme: ‘I applied on the scheme’s webpage and was matched with an engineer at AECOM, who encouraged me to apply for a placement with the company and gave me interview tips to help me prepare,’ she explained.

Specially organised careers event can be a non-scary way into networking and some organisations and universities run female-specific networking events, which are increasingly moving online during the pandemic. The targetjobs Future Female Engineers event, for example, has always been popular and is going virtual. Flora Charbonnier got a summer placement at AECOM through attending Future Female Engineers and said of the event: ‘I became part of a network of ambitious young women engineering students, who could seek advice from more experienced engineers if needed.’

It is worth checking with your university department, careers service or professional bodies to see if they run or know of similar events.

Quantity surveyor Ashley Dunsmore found her internships and her Kier graduate job by searching for people connected to quantity surveying on LinkedIn and contacting them to ask for their advice. ‘Everyone was very helpful and, if they couldn’t assist me, they put me in touch with someone who could,’ she told the UK 300 . ‘Using this approach, I got a place at three RICS conferences, which developed my surveying knowledge and widened my network. The most valuable piece of advice I received was to keep networking’

Top networking tips for student civil engineers, quantity surveyors and construction managers.

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 there 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

‘When I first started, I felt nervous about talking to suppliers and similar stakeholders on the phone; I was concerned that I wouldn’t know the answer if they asked me a question,’ admitted Charlotte from AECOM – a not uncommon fear among new graduates in the construction industry. ‘I also felt pressured that they would expect an answer straightaway. As I gained more experience, I learned that it was acceptable to say “I’ll get back to you about that”.’

As a graduate, it is expected that you won’t know everything. Kier’s Ashley Dunsmoer now has four years’ experience but has told us: ‘Even now, I ask lots of questions and I’d advise you to do the same when starting out. If you understand the different perspectives and responsibilities of other professionals, it helps you to give them the information they need and to build better relationships. Plus, people respect you more for saying you don’t know rather than pretending.’

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).

A round-up of salaries in the construction industry for graduates and experienced hires.

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.

Have the courage to go for new roles

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,’ Helen Samuels, an infrastructure projects engineering director at Network Rail and named as one of the top 50 most influential UK female engineers, recalled in a previous edition of the UK 300 . ‘Looking at the job listing, I thought “I could do that” and so decided to apply. 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.’

Also consider sideways moves as well as promotions, if it will give you new insights. Frances Elwell, a resource manager of 190 people in Mott MacDonald’s environment business, also told the UK 300 ‘You don’t need to be on a rigid, upwards path all the time – you can get satisfaction and learning opportunities by moving sideways. I have spent time in academia and industry; I’ve worked as a technical specialist, in client-focused roles and in people and project management roles. If an interesting role comes up, I’ll pursue it.’

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