Blog: Becoming a civil engineer – My journey
To celebrate International Women in Engineering Day, site engineer Gail McEwen tells her inspiring story of achieving career goals against the odds.
As a site engineer with I&H Brown, I am often asked how I got into construction and recently I had the honour of speaking in the Scottish Parliament to MSPs about the challenges I’ve faced, how I overcame them and what it’s like to be a female Engineer. CECA Scotland have asked me to share my story. I hope it inspires more girls and women to look at engineering and the exciting career opportunities it offers.
I come from an engineering family. My dad is a Civil Engineer, as was his father. On my mum’s side, there are Electrical Engineers. You might say that Engineering is in the genes! I remember when I was younger, my dad would sometimes take me and my sister out on site. One site really stood out; it was during the construction of the Falkirk Wheel, a lovely summer’s day, the workers had music on and were working away having a great laugh. I remember feeling how happy everyone was. The men even showed us how to use some of the tools and explained to us what they were doing - my first real taste of construction.
I asked my dad if construction was an industry I could work in. If one day I could be an Engineer like him. In short the answer was no. The construction industry 20 years ago was very different to today. My dad said no woman (and especially not his daughter) should have to put up with the way men talk and act on site; that men on site would never respect a woman the way they do a man. I had this image in my mind of construction being a place full of Neanderthals that clubbed each other on a daily basis. And so I do understand why my dad tried to deter me from the industry!
Like most kids, I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career. But I knew for certain I didn’t want to work in an office all day. So I looked into the Police service, not because I had any real passion for the criminal justice system, but because I could see change happening. More and more women were becoming police officers; the service was moving with modern life. I sat the exams and tests but just one week before the interview, I was involved in a serious car accident, leaving me unable to walk for two years. I was told that the likelihood of making a full recovery was slim. The chance of a career in the police vanished; I had to rethink my options.
I began working in a call centre. It was far from how I pictured my life. But decided that if this was the hand I had been dealt, I was going to make the most of it. During this time my injury got gradually better until I made a full recovery, opening up my options again. By chance, my dad had taken up a job in Port Hedland, Australia for a Civil Engineering company in the iron ore sector. He said: “Gail, you need to get over here immediately. Australia is amazing and the work is fantastic. There are lots of women on the sites and you always said you wanted a career in construction, you have to get over here!”
I jumped at the opportunity. I felt it was my chance to start again. I packed up my things and went, starting on site as a labourer on a Fly in Fly out basis. I’d work in Port Headland for 4 weeks working 12-14 hour shifts 7 days a week, then a week off back in Perth. Anyone who has ever experienced Port Headland will tell you how brutal that part of the world is. Temperatures hit 50 degrees easily on a daily basis; you were swarmed with flies every moment of every day. It was certainly an experience to induce strong character traits! My role as a labourer meant I was involved in pretty much any job needing done on the site. From painting, sandblasting, washing cars to general tidying up. What struck me was the number of women on site with the majority being plant operators. I was encouraged to get into the operating side of the industry and I successfully gained my HGV licence, allowing me to return to site as an operator.
Working under harsh conditions really allows you to understand who you are and what you are capable of. The people I worked with became like family; I made the most amazing lifelong friends who welcomed and supported me throughout my time in Australia. I also started getting to know the Site Engineers; the conversations I had with them retriggered the interest I had in the industry all those years ago, when I was on site with my dad. I started questioning things like who designed this and why was it designed like that. I was looking at the site in a whole different way.
Another memorable moment was when I realised that the senior and lead Engineer was female. I was in complete awe of her; people would ask for her opinions, run into her office in a panic about problems out on site and she would calmly develop a solution, making solving issues look really easy. She was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met; I remember thinking, you are exactly who I want to be.
So I started looking at how to get into Civil Engineering back in Scotland. After 2 years in Australia, I was ready to come home. My plan was to get a job as a labourer or plant operator, something which I now had experience in while looking for an opportunity to start Engineering. I found out through the internet that CITB offered funding for apprenticeships, all I had to do was find a company willing to allow me to work 4 days a week and attend college once a week to gain an HNC. I was worried that construction in Scotland was not the same as it was in Australia; I was concerned women might not be welcome on sites here but I was also worried about my age. Who ever heard of a 24 year old apprentice? But regardless, I was determined it was what I wanted.
I started applying to plant/ groundwork companies looking for a position on site. I sent countless applications to companies “desperate” for operators. Out of all the applications, I received just one phone call back. It was the most condescending phone call I have ever taken in my life. I was asked if I was aware that operating plant was not the same as driving a car, if I knew what the different types of plant are used for and in the end to get me off the phone, I was told I was over qualified!
As you can imagine, this really knocked me back and I became very disheartened. I felt I was fighting a losing battle, that women just couldn’t do it here in the UK but as luck would have it, a colleague back in Australia mentioned a company called I&H Brown who had just taken on a Civil Engineering apprentice. I contacted them company and an interview was arranged for me to meet with the Divisional and Managing Directors who, to my disbelief asked me normal interview questions; the same questions they would have asked a man.
I did not feel out of place or different in any way but I was so convinced the interview was going to be a tick box exercise that I hadn’t really prepared. I thought nothing would come of it but my passion for construction must have shone through! I was offered to work with I&H Brown for one year in order to gain some Engineering experience to make sure I liked it, if not they would offer me a position as an operator. I was speechless, literally speechless!
I started work the next week, working at Hunterston Power station, where I&H Brown were the building the platforms for the new interconnector station. I was working with an extremely experienced, well established Engineer called Alan Swan. He took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. I owe a lot about of where I am today to Alan. He was a fantastic mentor and role model for me. By the end of my first year I was discussing specifications with clients and designers, setting out and surveying on my own and solely responsible for site quality files. I then started my HNC at Glasgow Kelvin College and then completed an SVQ Level 3, letting me apply to sit a professional review for EngTech through the Institution of Civil Engineers. After a successful review, I am now entitled to use EngTech MICE after my name.
Earlier this year, I won CECA Scotland’s Most Promising Technician 2016 Award. The feeling when I was standing on stage looking out to a sea of people who all work in the construction industry was indescribable. Everything started running through my head. After years of being told no and hearing things like “women just aren’t smart enough, they lack math intelligence” to “women aren’t strong enough to work in construction”, I never thought it was possible I’d be on stage collecting an award for Most Promising Technician.
Four years on from starting with I&H Brown, I am now getting involved in the management side of projects, offering solutions to Engineering problems, designing changes, taking part in client meetings, delivering solutions to mitigate costs, time and wastage on projects and getting involved in the commercial side of the business. I am also a mentor and Delegated Engineer for another new female Trainee Engineer at the company. I have had a tremendous amount of help and support from colleagues within I&H Brown who have and continue to help me develop my skills, encourage me to reach my professional goals and provide a helping hand whenever I need advice. I’m often asked what it’s like working a heavily male dominated environment. I have found that I’ve have had to adopt certain skills which do not necessarily come naturally to me. What we need to remember is that most workplaces have been created by men and roles gendered in this way.
In order to win the confidence of male colleagues, what I find works well for me is adapting things like the natural way I speak; dropping habits like starting a sentence with “I am not sure everyone will agree with this” or “if you don’t mind me saying…” Doing this instantly makes you sound more confident. I also have adapted how I network and how I communicate in meetings and discussions by speaking up and saying what needs to be said. It can feel like a constant balancing act, wanting to show you are no shrinking violet but trying not to overdo it so you end up completely out your comfort zone. I see this juggling contest as character building; understanding how people work really does make a huge difference professionally.
There’s no doubt the industry still has much to do to change people’s perceptions. We have yet to shake the image that it’s an industry where you need to work outside in the freezing cold and rain all day and I know many women worry about social isolation and the outdated Neanderthal picture, which I was painted as a young girl, is still a perception many people have, despite the industry not being like that at all.
The way to change this is through schools by means of organised activities from an early age, careers events and employer engagement; really getting the chance to talk to young people and parents, in both primary and high school. Speaking personally to a young person and their parents is often the difference between gaining and losing interest, between a young person choosing a career in construction or deciding to look elsewhere.
The work that organisations like CECA and ICE do is making a massive difference, but much more needs to be done to make a career in construction more attractive to women; to ensure that civil engineering is a career that excites the next generation of girls and they take their rightful place at the heart of our industry. I look forward to playing my part in ensuring that many more girls embark on a civil engineering journey in future!
- Gail McEwen is a site engineer at I&H Brown in Dunfermline. In February 2017 she won CECA Scotland’s Emerging Talent Award for Most Promising Technician.