To mark National Women in Engineering Day, Transport Network puts the key questions to Kate Morris, AECOM’s director – strategic planning & advisory, transportation.
How did you get into engineering? And how have you enjoyed your career so far?
Rather by default – my school careers advisor recommended engineering or architecture as I had a flair for maths and science. At the age of 14, a five-year course at university for architecture seemed like an eternity so I went for engineering.
I did some work experience with a friend of the family in Buckinghamshire’s Highways Department and enjoyed my time there. So I thought: ‘Why not?’
I have enjoyed my career to date as it has been very varied, providing me with the opportunity to work on a diverse set of projects, travel outside the UK, and meet and work with lots of interesting individuals.
What have been your proudest moments?
I am most proud when I see the benefits of the work I do in terms of the wider population. Driving along the section of road I was involved in as a graduate engineer in Maidstone, knowing that I helped with the delivery on site and that it has subsequently benefited locals for the past 25 years.
Exiting Leeds station by the new southern entrance as I go to work, knowing that I was part of the team that gained funding from the Department for Transport and developed the initial design and specification.
I am also proud of all the more junior staff members I have helped develop through their careers and watched flourish. My maternal instincts come to the fore as I see individuals grow in confidence and develop into well-rounded, successful individuals.
But I am also proud to have had a successful career, experienced life through extensive travelling, both with work and independently, and helped create two wonderful daughters who I believe have exciting opportunities ahead of them and so I am working hard to give them the tools to embrace this – self-belief, a thirst for knowledge and experiences, and a good sense of humour!
What lessons have you learned from your experience in the sector that you would pass on to the next generation of women?
Take risks and grab opportunities even if it scares the life out of you. Stay true to yourself and ensure that you continue to develop and learn from others.
Is there anything that helped you in your career that you would highlight as particularly important?
Establishing a good working relationship with managers and work colleagues. It is so much easier to get things done if you can have open and honest discussions with those around you.
I have been fortunate with the line managers I have had through my career, but a lot of the success of that was because we had mutual respect and a two-way relationship – as with anything in life you get back what you put in. Having strong role models is also important – it gives you something to strive for and a better understanding of the role and person you’d like to be.
Is there anything that was available to you that isn't available to young women today?
I think that there was a naivety in my early career that was actually beneficial – I went to a single sex school and social media didn’t exist. I was probably aware of issues such as stereotypes and gender imbalance but as access to this kind of information was more difficult than it is today I never questioned my decisions.
Young women today have access to a wealth of information that can be used to their advantage. It’s important they research which universities are working hard to address the gender balance within their student intake, and join networks and groups that enable them to meet and converse with other individuals.
Have you ever had to address sexism and how did you deal with it?
Yes, but I don’t believe it was ever intended in a malicious way. When I worked on site, people would always approach my ‘chain boy’ before me, assuming he was in charge.
I have always therefore tried to downplay these instances and move on quickly, and tried not to take it to heart. It is more important that I am seen as a successful engineer than a successful female engineer and so have tried not to make issues around gender but more demonstrate my capability through my actions.
Which woman engineer is your heroine/someone you look up to?
In my mid-twenties I worked for Halcrow in London and was fortunate to work with Dr Michèle Dix, who has subsequently been awarded a CBE and is now MD of Crossrail 2. Michelle was a lone female in a sea of male directors and I learnt a lot from seeing how she worked in that environment.
She provided a real role model in terms of someone who managed to balance a successful career and family – and importantly stayed true to herself.