INWED21: Navigating a traditionally male industry

3 min read

female engineers

My advice for budding female engineers is simple – be enthusiastic, ask a lot of questions, seek out exciting opportunities and find a role model in your organisation, says Leonora Lang, Associate, Vertical Transportation, Building Engineering, Arup

As a little girl, I went through several dream careers ready for when I grew up. I wanted to be a jet fighter pilot, an astronaut, a physics academic – none of which are jobs that you’d typically associate with women. That needs to change; we need to challenge the status quo.

So, how did I end up as an engineer at Arup? Having completed my degree in physics at Imperial College London, I went on to do some further studies in other subjects. Purely by chance, I was given the opportunity to join Arup by an open-minded director who liked the look of the extra-curricular interests on my CV.

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From healthcare to the arts

And I haven’t looked back since. From joining Arup as a graduate to where I am today, I’ve worked on some truly ground-breaking projects in my 16 years here. My list of projects runs into the hundreds due to my role as a specialist engineer, and I’m privileged to have worked across a wide variety of sectors and business. However, there are some that I feel particularly proud to have been involved with.

Our work on Guy’s Cancer Centre, part of Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital, was solely centred around the patient, which was incredibly rewarding and the feedback from staff and patients has been fantastic. With architects RSH+P, the vision was to transform the experience of cancer patients by simplifying their journeys in a single building. There are a number of stacked villages relating to a particular patient need, which are relatively self-contained and thus reduce the need to visit multiple departments around the hospital campus.

Meanwhile, Burlington Gardens, Royal Academy of Arts, provided me with the challenge of trying to improve the accessibility of an iconic listed building. The art lift that I helped to design rises up through an opening created by a section of the gallery floor hinging up.

Another challenge saw me designing an external lift in a coastal location, while being mindful of the acoustically sensitive performance spaces of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC) in Athens. One thing that I love about my job is that I am constantly learning something new and a perfect example of this is my recent involvement with a research project to look at embodied carbon of lift installations.

Encouraging fellow females

Being a female engineer is such a diverse career and I want others to realise the sense of satisfaction that working in this industry provides. Many women are deterred from pursuing a career in construction due to the clichéd hardhat and construction site image. However, that couldn’t be further from my day job. By contrast, most of my time is spent talking to collaborators globally. And I’ve travelled all over the world as a result, from Montreal to Helsinki.

There are many different jobs and disciplines to be found within the construction industry, so graduates don’t necessarily need to choose something that exactly matches their degree. None of my past education is related to my field of work, but I’m curious and more than willing to learn and adapt. More often than not, that’s all that you need to succeed.

As a member of the CIBSE Inclusion Panel and Engagement Pillar committee, as well as a mentor with the Girls Network, I am determined to bring more female perspectives into the sector. This passion extends to my day-to-day role at Arup, where I am an active mentor, guiding new graduates to help them to be the best they want to – and can – be.

Work to find solutions, not barriers

My advice for budding female engineers is simple – be enthusiastic, ask a lot of questions, seek out exciting opportunities and find a role model in your organisation. I’m also a strong advocate for working to find solutions, not barriers. A perfect example of this is when I fell pregnant halfway through a pilot leadership scheme. Rather than giving up and missing the rest of the program, I worked with my course leader to use the workshops as my ‘keep in touch’ days. Far from standing out, my colleagues did not bat an eyelid when I brought my new baby along with me – and fed and changed him while participating.

This demonstrates that the tide is beginning to turn but there is still more work to be done to truly close the gap. Until then, let’s use our uniqueness to our advantage because there’s one thing that I can always be sure of; as a female engineer, I’ll have immediate ice breaker chat in meetings or with new prospects.

Leonora Lang, Associate, Vertical Transportation, Building Engineering, Arup

International Women in Engineering Day – June 23 – is an awareness campaign to raise the profile of women in engineering and focuses attention on the amazing career opportunities available to girls in this exciting industry. It also celebrates the outstanding achievements of women engineers throughout the world. The event is organised by The Women’s Engineering Society.