To mark International Women in Engineering Day, Katherine Jackson of Mott MacDonald, a Chartered Civil Engineer and a STEM Ambassador, looks back to when she got the buzz for engineering.
Aruba, Greece, New Zealand, the Bahamas. Where will I be working next month?
As a technical advisor to banks, pensions funds, governments or contractors on Private Finance Initiatives, my clients and projects can be located anywhere in the world.
Whilst many meetings are held using video conferencing, visits to site are a necessity; and on a personal level, very welcome. I love meeting new people, experiencing different cultures, trying wonderful cuisine, and occasionally enjoy the sunshine we don’t get to see in the UK!
This is not a role one would typically link with being a Chartered Civil Engineer, and certainly something I didn’t foresee as a teenager when questioning whether to leave the sixth form part way into my A-Levels.
Looking back, I think the buzz for engineering began when some friends and I entered a competition to design the extension to the Chartered Institute of Building headquarters. Our presentation on the design followed the brief, unlike our competitors (Learning point 1: understand your clients’ needs and deliver it), and we won. The prize was lunch aboard the QE2 and more significantly for me, a visit to the redevelopment of the Baltic Exchange building, now ‘the Gherkin’.
But I digress…when I was unable to alter my A-levels, I jumped ship and left behind an all-girls school to be the only girl in the class at college, studying engineering. It was a great choice as classes included programming computers, doing manual and computer aided design, and designing, building and racing a go-kart!
I look back at that time and think of all the opportunities I turned down, as my instinct was they weren’t right for me, including apprenticeships at Thames Water and Mars. I am thoroughly content with the route I pursued (Learning Point 2: go with your gut). Following achieving an Ordinary National Diploma in engineering at college, I studied civil engineering at the University of Portsmouth.
During my degree, I thought it would be good to try some different aspects of the engineering industry. My first summer was spent setting out a road for a large contractor; my second and third summers I worked for Mott MacDonald on the A303 Stonehenge Project. I enjoyed the work and the people I worked with and when they offered me a full-time position and a bursary for my final year, I knew that was the option for me (Learning Point 3: try before you buy).
The past 15 years at Mott MacDonald has been an enjoyable and varied experience. I developed a head for heights whilst working on the Humber Bridge northern approach rehabilitation and spent many a night huddled behind an asphalt paver for warmth whilst working on Highways England’s network.
I also travelled to Brazil to view a motorway and assess costs for widening it to 11 lanes in each direction(!); took an “arduous” site opportunity in the Bahamas (Learning Point 4: a change is as good as a holiday – particularly when the change lands you on a Caribbean beach); occupied a few weeks in New Zealand advising contractors on their infrastructure bid; travelled to Greece monthly during the construction of a motorway incorporating several tunnels; and full circle, quite literally, supporting Highways England on the M25 DBFO back in the UK.
There have been challenges. I wasn’t well received at my first site placement in 2001. The labourers didn’t think a woman belonged on site, yet they were quick to deride the young male engineers should they swear in front of me or ask me to carry anything heavy!
Getting stuck in, making decisions and keeping them busy, began to soften their stance and I was asked back many times. Similarly, when I took the site placement in the Bahamas ten years later, there was some uncertainty from the client over whether I would fit with the team, being the only female engineer on site. Their worries were soon put to rest.
The communication skills developed with the client, stakeholders and public in the Bahamas have been key to my development and I now use these to influence others and encourage learning and development.
I am now a STEM Ambassador keen to embolden others to inspire the next generation of engineers. I also continue to develop my communication skills through my board position on the Women’s Infrastructure Network, in which we seek to grow the visibility of women and to provide a networking and support group for women in the infrastructure sector. (Learning Point 5: Keep going, keep growing).