‘Engineering offers all the opportunities anyone could possibly want – to women as well as men,’ explains Michelle McDowell MBE, the first woman to be made president of ACE (The Association for Consultancy and Engineering). In its 100+ year history, no female has chaired this organisation which is the business voice for engineering companies responsible for delivering, and maintaining economic and social infrastructure UK-wide.
As well as being instrumental in the construction and renovation of universities, hospitals and schools Michelle has coordinated the revamping of some of the most famous buildings in the country, including the Royal Albert Hall, and – her latest team project – the Houses of Parliament.
She tells First Women what she has learned – from a child ‘helping dad build fences and garden walls’ to becoming one of the most influential women in British engineering.
Challenging or unexpected situations can cultivate the right conditions for your career
I grew in a small rural village. I was always helping dad build fences and garden walls. When I was 11, mum and dad decided to build their own family home and I was on site helping everyone! I attended an all girls’ school and focused on science and maths. One day, dad bought home a leaflet about girls in engineering. It was a residential course in Sheffield – a very long way from my home in Northern Ireland. I was 16 and all my girlfriends said, ‘go for it!’ even though a lot of them didn’t really know what engineering was. It was then a very hard time in Northern Ireland. A lot of my friends and I were keen to move away and this encouraged ambition.
Use what you are made of to your advantage
Who taught me to be ambitious? Well…[laughs] with my Northern Ireland background, I come with a level of stubborness and drive already engrained! My parents didn’t push me or force me towards a career. They said, ‘you can do whatever you want to do.’
Practical skills can often be applied to strategic problems
If I find an issue challenging, I find a quiet space and adopt an engineering approach. I assess the problem first. Then I explore the possible solutions, choose the best, refine how they might work and apply the optimum solution. It’s a structured way.
Engineering and business has also taught me to be clear about my needs and how I express them, how to give useful feedback and to manage problems as soon as they arise. All of which has been very useful when I have had to coordinate with my family!
Seek the positive in being the minority
Being female in a male dominated environment has its drawbacks but it certainly has benefits. You stand out for a start. If you are the only woman in the room you have a greater chance to make your mark. People remember you, they remember your name – you are more visible. Men can get lost in a room full of men.
There aren’t many women in engineering and that’s down to engineers
The image of engineering is a problem – in terms of women not thinking it’s for them – and that is down to us as engineers. There are lots of exciting things to talk about and we must talk about them more! This industry can also necessitate a lot of moving around, which may not suit women with a family. Plus, it is male dominated. There’s no getting away from that fact and even the idea of having to come up against that can put a lot of women off.
Fundamentally, you have to be courageous in a male dominated workplace
As a woman in this industry, I have had to learn to stay true to what I want and what I want to say. Don’t try and change yourself to fit – it will always catch you out! If you feel strongly, speak out, but it will push you beyond your comfort zone. Often in meetings I’ll say what I’m thinking – like, ‘why have you just said that, when so and so has just said this?’ Or I’ll ask what something means if I don’t know. 99% of the time you will see others agreeing or looking relieved because you voiced the unspoken question. Be brave and do it. Very, very rarely do you come off looking foolish.
Find a male mentor
It is very helpful to have someone on the ‘other side’ who will talk positively about you to your peers. I have been surprised by how much the positive support from my male mentors helped me reach the BDP board (formerly the Building Design Partnership, an international practice of architects, designers and engineers)
Men and women bring different things to the table and both are needed
On the Royal Albert Hall project (the historic building’s comprehensive £77 million refurbishment in 2003 throughout during which it remained open to the public) this was especially true. It was technically a very difficult project. We had a four-storey excavation on one side of the RAH and lots of expensive flats adjacent to it. Some of the project meetings had lots of people on edge: would the Hall fall into the excavation? What about settlement causing damage? There was a lot of aggression coming up. I stayed calm and brought it back to the facts and engineering reality, versus the extreme views arising from everyone wanting or needing different things. I encouraged collaboration and I think that is an inherently female tendency. The job could not be about self-protection, it had to be about all being in it together.
Men on the other hand were inherently skilful when it came to keeping the project timeline ship-shape. Whilst we were working, concerts were still going on and we had to coordinate works around performances and rehearsals. The men set a very clear and strong format so that this tricky scenario could work.
Acknowledge your own work in your own way
People are often surprised that I was the first female president of ACE – because it is the 21st century! I was surprised too, to be honest. I was just there, getting on with my career, doing my job and suddenly the accolades arrived and they came as a surprise. I don’t feel I necessarily deserve them…I think I’m quite lucky! I suppose women tend to be self-deprecating in this sense. Maybe, when I have been working on my CV I may have thought, ‘ooh, I really do fit that role well…’ But celebrating success is usually a quiet affair at home with my partner!
Honour how discrimination really makes you feel
Yes, if I’m being honest, I would say that there has been resistance to me as a female throughout my career. I remember a male contractor once saying to me, ‘I don’t take instruction from a female.’ OK, it was 1984, but I got very upset – I think I went and cried in the toilets. I had been raised in an environment were there was no discrimination and I suddenly thought, is this really what this industry is like? I talked to my partner about it and he said I should have made a joke and laughed it off. But I’m not a ‘quick response’ type of person – and also I thought, why should I laugh it off’? It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t me that had a problem, it was the contractor. Things were eventually resolved by my senior technician, but the aforementioned contractor was never happy about me working on the project.
Women have to work harder to be respected
I have also met a lot of assumptions about how I have got on in my career. I am – and have had to be – 100% professional at all times to avoid any potential misconceptions about how I advanced in engineering. It is assumed that at a certain age as a woman you will want to start a family. And I also suspect that when I reached that age, certain promotions passed me by. Now, that might sound like sour grapes, but comparing skills and contribution at the time…I can’t but wonder if the assumption that I would want to leave and have children negatively affected my chances. As it turned out, I ended up having a family after I had reached the board of directors!
Your gender is relevant – use it to make a difference
Yes, I do go out and talk about my experiences. I am proud to be a woman in a male dominated profession. I don’t put it aside. I can’t. I wish that wasn’t the case but it is and so I want to be part of the journey to making it more accessible to other women.
Engineering is exciting!
My team have just won the contract to refurbish the Houses of Parliament – it doesn’t get much more high profile than that!
I might be changing a nappy or bouncing around in a soft play centre with my young children when I suddenly think: ‘I’m refurbishing the Houses of Parliament…’
You are only as good as your team
When you meet your edge and feel challenged, the only way to grow is to keep moving forward. So, I do my homework. I inform myself. I ask advice from others who have experience in the field. I gather a team that has the experience that I personally lack. And we collaborate to get the job done.
Women have the advantage of being good communicators, and good communication is what facilitates really effective collaboration. Being in touch with people, their skills and what they want, what’s going on for them. Talking to everyone on every level with the same respect. Acknowledging their skills and how they have contributed. Giving credit where it is due. Women tend to do this more naturally, whereas I often see men take personal credit for a team effort. But by acknowledging your team you gain their loyalty and respect.
Being a business woman and being a parent has a lot of useful overlaps
There is a need to clearly set goals and boundaries. To allow space for creativity and for self-expression – maybe more space than you dare so that others can really flourish. There’s a lot of common ground actually! I say what’s what with my children – and I definitely learnt to do that with my job!
Interview by Deborah Willimott