International Women in Engineering Day (#INWED20) is an exciting opportunity for us to raise the profile of our talented women. It's also a time to double down on our commitment, enabling female employees to Shape the World. In our latest blog of the series, we caught up with Rhona, Senior Geotechnical Engineer at Atkins, a member of the SNC Lavalin Group.
Expertise and knowledge that's valued
Rhona has been with us since 2014 and in the geotechnical industry for over ten years. She has mostly worked in rail, although she also has experience in power, energy, building design and highways. She is also a Chartered Engineer with the Institution of Civil Engineers and a Registered Ground Engineering Professional. She was also nominated for the James Rennie Medal in 2015 and is a Royal Academy of Engineering Panasonic Trust Fellow.
Empowering the next generation
Rhona describes herself as a STEMinist. As a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers Continuing Professional Development Panel, she uses her influence as a role model to encourage young people to choose STEM careers and raise the profile of female engineers.
Was there a defining moment that led to your engineering career?
In secondary school, I was the only female student studying Advanced Higher Technological Studies. While most of the male students were applying to university to study Engineering, my course choices were all for Geography. My teacher challenged my decision and requested that I consider Civil Engineering. In a flurry of last-minute Tippex (no electronic applications in those days), I changed three of my choices to Civil Engineering. I received offers from all Universities and elected to study Civil Engineering at the University of Glasgow. As a Geotechnical Engineer, I can blend my interests in both Engineering and Physical Geography, a perfect match thanks to Mr. Blair!
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
Taking a complex geotechnical problem and using my theoretical knowledge and experience to develop a solution, and then seeing that integrated into a complete, multi-disciplinary project is very satisfying. When working on railway projects, you have to be very aware of all the other discipline interfaces that will influence or impact your solution. Working across the disciplines means I'm constantly working with others to define optimal solutions. So, I love sharing knowledge and supporting my colleagues' or young people's understanding of geotechnics.
How has your experience been as a woman in the industry?
From the moment, at age 13, when I selected science courses in secondary school, I've been in the gender minority. So, for most of my life, I've studied and worked in a predominantly male environment. Unfortunately, this has meant I've often shrugged off casual sexism as banter. However, as I've matured as a woman and witnessed my female peers leave the industry, I've become more outspoken on gender equality. Diversity and inclusion initiatives, which are providing a platform for women in engineering to be heard, have allowed the whole industry to reflect on its unconscious bias towards women in historically male roles. And it's made it easier for women like me to speak out.
What advice would you give to younger women in the organization?
Use your voice. Whether you're in an office environment or on-site, when you have an idea, it's important to voice it. Your life experience as a woman will be different from others. Therefore, you're able to provide unique opinions on problems impacting our built environment!
Why are diversity and inclusion awareness and action important to the engineering industry?
Because they're essential to society as a whole, the engineering industry – specifically civil engineering influences our built environment. We must build a world for everyone!
I highly recommend the book "Invisible Women" by Caroline Criado Perez, it exposes data bias in a world designed for men. Criado writes that the formula to determine office temperature was developed in the 1960s, based on the metabolic resting rate of a 40-year-old, 70 kg man. Women's metabolisms are slower, so most offices are five degrees too cold for women. Meanwhile, cars are designed around the body of "Reference Man." So, although men are more likely to crash, women involved in collisions are nearly 50% more likely to be seriously hurt. Sweden used to clear roads before pavements after a policy derived from data prioritizing commuter cars over pedestrians. It was only later that officials realised it was easier to drive through three inches of snow than push a buggy through it. Clearing pavements first also saves the state money as pedestrians were three times more likely to be injured in icy conditions than car drivers – and 70% of those injured were women. The engineering industry can transform and influence our daily lives, so we should use diverse and inclusive teams to do it.
How do you champion diversity and inclusion in your role?
Whether it's my role as a STEM Ambassador or my voice in a meeting, I would like to demonstrate that women in engineering are a norm rather than an exception. By calling out acts of exclusion and supporting the voices of minorities, we can obtain unique perspectives, and ultimately, give the organization a competitive edge.
Who are your role models?
There are many, whether it be my Mum or school teachers, colleagues and peers. I'm sure there will be many more as I continue to develop and grow within this industry, and I hope I can reciprocate by providing advice and mentorship.
The theme of this #INWED20 is Shape the World. What kind of world would you like to see for women in engineering?
I would like to see a world that is designed and built for everyone that lives in it with equality at the centre. By creating a fairer built environment, we will be able to move towards an equal society.
What's one action that people can take to help make a career in STEM a more attractive choice for women?
Develop an awareness of your own unconscious bias and use your ability to support women's voices.