INWED 2021: You can only be what you can see, says infrastructure specialist
Visibility and relatability are two of the key elements encouraging young women to pursue a career in engineering, according to one of the construction industry’s leading female voices.
Speaking as part of International Women in Engineering Day (23 June 2021), Tara-Leigh McVey – our infrastructure framework director – believes that early engagement and making the whole journey relatable is essential to growing the number of women choosing to pursue a career in construction.
She said: “There is so much being done at university level and in schools through STEM events to ensure that women see engineering as a viable career path, but it’s also important to start really early and ensure that young children have visible role models too.
“We have the opportunity to speak to children as early as primary school, and that’s our chance to show them they can be anything they want to be.
“For example, you can show them that they can build a tunnel. When you’re five or six years old, building a tunnel is just cool – you don’t necessarily understand all the calculations and the reinforcement – but if we can get in early and really encourage children to embrace their love of doing things like that as soon as possible, you’re already building the next generation of engineers.”
When it comes to introducing engineering as a career path for older children, Tara believes that relatability is the most crucial aspect.
She said: “I'm very lucky that now I’m in a director role, I get the opportunity to speak to students more regularly, but it can also be a challenge when it comes to making the industry relatable.
“It’s important to show the career journey – in my case, taking them from where I started to where I am today, and where I hope to go. If you can do that and make it relatable to the discipline they're currently following – whether that’s at school, college or university – the results will only be positive.”
Tara believes that attitudes in the industry are changing rapidly with the increasing numbers of women in visible roles – especially those on-site.
She said: “During my very early time on site in the oil fields of northern Canada, I would wear a wedding band [despite not being married] as a visible sign for people to respect me and reinforce the message that I was very much there to do a job, just as they were.
“But you move forward 20 years and it’s a pleasure that you can go on a site and there's not just one or two women, but a good number of us doing the same job that everyone else is doing.
“Most importantly, they're being listened to; they're leading the meetings and they’re doing the instructions. There is still a way to go – and it’s as much about educating young men as it is young women – but the movement is hugely positive.
“I, myself, have two young boys, so I’m also part of teaching the next generation that girls and boys are the same. It’s about education – boys and girls can both run to the end of the garden to see who’s fastest, they can both make the mud pies, they can both share and learn to be kind. That’s where the biggest difference will be made.”
With more than two decades’ experience in engineering, Tara believes the ever-changing nature of the industry means those in it need to consider their career goals as constantly evolving.
She said: “What you do in high school or university isn't going to define your career path. When I was younger, I was interested in doing geology with the idea of being a palaeontologist. I’ve gone from working in environmental oil and gas, to coastal engineering, to super tunnels, to commercial management, to operations.
“I would never have foreseen that journey 20 years ago, but if you recognise the fluidity of your career early on, it gives you the foundation to roll with the way it can evolve and change as time progresses.
“It’s also important to recognise that career success will look and feel different at various points in your life. In your 20s, your first job, or first promotion, or first successful project is going to feel like career success.
“That may then change in your mid- to late-30s – success may be working three days a week because you’re raising a family, or because you’re pursuing a different passion alongside your work. Both of those things are successes, and they are equal.
“One isn’t better than the other – it's just different and really reflective of how you're growing and what you want out of those parts of your life.”