Driven by diversity: Bechtel’s global rail boss Ailie MacAdam

Having played a leading role on some of the UK’s biggest civil engineering projects, Ailie MacAdam is perhaps an unlikely advocate of the notion that industry should do more to attract and retain female engineers.


Ailie MacAdam 3
MacAdam’s remit spans some of the world’s largest rail projects

During a 30-year career at construction and engineering giant Bechtel Corporation, Macadam has made an indelible mark on some critical areas of the UK’s transport infrastructure. 

Between 2003 and 2008 she led the team that delivered the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, whetting the UK’s appetite for high-speed rail. She managed the construction of St Pancras International, arguably one of Europe’s most iconic train stations, and until recently was delivery director for the central section of London’s monumental Crossrail project.

Now, as managing director of Bechtel’s global rail business, she is responsible for a dizzying array of projects including a vital rail extension in Rio ahead of the 2016 Olympics and a $10 bn contract to construct lines 1 and 2 of Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh Metro: the world’s biggest rail project.

Yet despite a remit that one might imagine would leave little time for anything else, MacAdam told The Engineer that she still finds time to engage with an issue that she believes is critical to the long-term success of any business: diversity.

MacAdam admits that in terms of her own career path, her gender has never been much more than incidental: no-one ever tried to dissuade her from pursuing a career in engineering and, like many other successful female engineers, she says she’s barely noticed the fact that from the moment she set foot in a university lecture theatre she’s been massively outnumbered. But she is nevertheless acutely aware that she’s the exception rather than the norm and that, given the high demand for skilled engineers across a range of sectors, the relatively low proportion of women (it’s flat-lining at around six per cent in the UK) is a cause for concern.

26 miles of tunnels are being built beneath London
26 miles of tunnels are being built beneath London

At root, she says, encouraging diversity isn’t about some fluffy corporate notion of doing the right thing but is good business sense, and she believes there is a growing and meaningful recognition throughout industry that this is the case.

A diverse team – which has different ways of analysing a problem, different types of thinking, different ways of collaborating is a richer team that produces better results

‘The whole debate has moved tremendously in the past two to three years from frankly a very politically correct conversation to much more of a business-imperative conversation,’ she said. ‘It’s not that women are any better than men, or people from certain ethnic minorities are any better, it’s that a diverse team – which has different ways of analysing a problem, different types of thinking, different ways of collaborating is a richer team that produces better results.’

It sounds simple. And in an ideal world, diverse teams would be the natural results of the best people ending up in the right roles. However, said MacAdam, we’re not going to get there by simply making engineering careers more appealing to everyone. Instead, enabling businesses to exploit the benefits of diversity will require targeted intervention.

Ailie MacAdam 2
Ailie MacAdam 2

One area that she believes requires urgent attention is the issue of unconscious bias: our natural tendency to favour the kind of people we’re used to and have worked with before, rather than be truly objective about someone’s abilities.

It’s a damaging approach to management which, she says, most of us are guilty of.  ‘I think we all have unconscious biases, we’re all more comfortable with people we’ve worked with before.’

She points to a recent personal “wow” moment that has, she said, made her doubly determined to drive unconscious bias training throughout her own organisation. ‘I was recruiting for a role recently and sitting there thinking about who would be the perfect person to fill this slot. And I realised I wasn’t thinking about how they act, how they lead, or their experience…I had a picture in my head of white middle aged man.’

We all have unconscious biases, we’re all more comfortable with people we’ve worked with before

‘It was’, she said, ‘a moment of “jeez if I’m thinking that and I’ve been trying to drive diversity and inclusivity for year” then goodness knows what other people are thinking. Industry needs to have those kind of moments and to really think hard about what those unconscious biases are.’

MacAdam also believes that there’s a role for affirmative action, where companies actively favour people from groups that are perceived to suffer from discrimination.

It’s a controversial approach. And she admits that there’s a fine line between affirmative action and positive discrimination (some would say there’s no difference). But she believes that, used sensibly, affirmative action can be an effective way of creating conditions where everyone can enjoy the same opportunity.

‘You talk to a lot of women who will say “that’s the last thing we should be doing. I want to be in that position because I’m the right person to be in that position, not because I happen to be a female”. But it’s a tool that overcomes unconscious bias. It forces you to think about how to increase your diversity on a team and forces you to think about ways you can do that that doesn’t impact performance. It puts you in a position where you’re forced into something and then you recognise the benefits of it and then the momentum starts off.’

St Pancras
St Pancras

Another priority is ensuring that once women have embarked on an engineering career, they’re encouraged to stay. ‘We do lose women when they’re in their early 30s and there are a number of reasons for that,’ she said. ‘It could be people wanting to leave and have a family, but there are women who haven’t had children who also leave, potentially because they haven’t got line of sight on their progress.’

Industry’s attitude to maternity breaks is undoubtedly a major issue, but, said MacAdam, it’s a fact of life that shouldn’t hamper someone’s career prospects, and if employers take the time to talk through the issues it’s always possible to find a solution that works for the individual and the business.

‘Over the last 18 months I’ve had more people in my team come to talk to me about the fears of going on maternity leave than I’ve had in the rest of my career. They ask things like  “if I take 6 months off is it going to affect my career? Is it seen as lack of commitment having a family? How can I keep in touch? What kind of job will I have when I come back?” There’s question after question which are absolutely reasonable, and once you talk through them you can have a proper two way conversation that helps the company, helps the supervisor and helps the individual. Talk is good. But 18 months ago we weren’t having that type of talk.’

Riyadh Metro
Riyadh Metro

As a result of these types of conversation, Bechtel is about to kick off a program that enables women on maternity leave to keep in touch with the company and, if they want, to return for particular training courses or workshops.

I feel an obligation to give that visibility to young women who are making career choices early on of what the opportunity is

Macadam is also excited about the firm’s involvement in Your Life, a joint government industry initiative aimed at inspiring more young people, especially girls, to pursue a career in science and technology. One of a number of industry signatories to the campaign, Bechtel has pledged to hold at least five UK events aimed at aiding the advancement of women in engineering as well as at least 24 outreach events for young women each year.

Her success, experience, and enthusiasm, makes Macadam an important role model for these kind of intitiaitives and, she says, its a part she’s only too happy to play.  ‘I’ve had a terrific career, I’ve loved every single moment of it and wouldn’t want to do anything different. I feel an obligation to give that visibility to young women who are making career choices early on of what the opportunity is.’

Ailie MacAdam

Biog: Ailie MacAdam, Managing Director, Global Rail Bechtel 

Education

Studied Chemical Engineering at Bradford University

Career

  • 1985 Joined Bechtel’s graduate training scheme
  • 2003 – 2008 Led the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (HS1) team, and managed the renovation and extension of St Pancras station in London
  • 2008 Won the Inspire award for Inspiration Leader in Engineering
  • 2009 – 2014 Delivery Director, Central section of Crossrail
  • 2014 Managing Director, Global Rail, Bechtel