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Interview with Dr Sarah Buck OBE

Dr Sarah Buck OBEInvolved in the design and supervision of a wide range of civil and structural projects over a 40-year career, in 1983 Sarah Buck became the first woman council member of the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE), an organisation with over 27,000 members. In 2007, after 100 years of male presidents, Sarah was elected IStructE’s first female president at the age of 54.

There is nothing to stop a woman succeeding in a man’s world

As a teenager, I deeply admired Marie Curie.  All she achieved in that field, at that time, as a woman. I thought she was amazing.  What incredible dedication. Despite how few of the girls at my school did so, I was determined  that I would go to university. My mother was one of four sisters and they all had strong personalities, so I grew up around that drive. I was particularly inspired by my aunt Eve; she was an eminent cancer research doctor who specialised in chemotherapy. She was confident and determined and fearlessly stood up to all the male surgeons who just wanted to cut out cancers and who considered chemotherapy to be no more than poison.
She eventually became the medical director of the Royal Marsden.

I learnt never to give up on problems… because I had to

I was bought up on a farm. Farms require endless problem solving because you can’t just sit back and say, ‘well I can’t help that animal, so I’ll leave it to sort itself out.’  You had to figure out a solution. It huge part of getting me where I am today because I was always aware of what I was capable of, what I could handle and my capacity to problem solve – all of which really help with one’s progression and confidence in the working world.

Women come to things with an ‘in-the-round’ view

Of course, it is always a generalisation and individuals have their own skillsets, but women in the main offer greater breadth and consideration to a situation – they are not one-track minded. They understand that, yes, a problem needs to be solved but that there may also be x, y and z to consider too. Engineering problems require more than technical solutions – there will be social implications to take into consideration.  Women discern that important element.

…and Men bring the focus

And focus can very often expedite things getting done. The capacity to stay on track and follow through to completion effectively is critical.

Stop thinking about the problem to solve the problem

If I can’t solve something, I go for a walk. I find it lets my subconscious work on it and when I come back I have a better view of things. Relaxing can often bring the answer.

Anticipate problems before they arise and take the time to attend to what’s required

There was a recent job I worked on in Cornwall –  a necessary job but very disruptive for the local people. It was important to explain to them what we were going to do, but to also understand their lives and the effects of the work on them. I spent a lot of time with them,  listening to their views and also explaining clearly why the work needed to be done. As a result, they were much more agreeable.  They wouldn’t have been deliberately obstructive but if everyone understands each other, things can move more smoothly.

Understand what is going on for people and tailor your approach accordingly

Sometimes in engineering, you have to give people challenging news – for example, they may need to leave their homes so work can be done. It is crucial that you phrase things in a way that allows them to understand. And that you take the time to ensure they have taken it in. High distress impairs a persons capacity to take in information so you may to repeat things three or even four times. And you should,
I was once asked to look at a job on which the client was very frustrated. She didn’t want yet another engineer asking questions – she just wanted a solution. She basically told me to go away. I could see she was stressed and angry so, I asked her for the only thing that she was able to agree to in that moment – could I go away and just look at the site? Instead of going back to her with lots more information, I thought about what she needed to hear. The building was a hotel and I knew that rather than talking about the structural timelines, she would want to know when she could open again. So I told her the work could be done in the winter to minimise guest losses. This was information she could understand and respond to. Not only did I get the job, she asked me to re-open the hotel once the work was complete!

Take every opportunity you can – even if the circumstances are tricky

As a woman in a man’s industry I never came up against direct resistance but I did notice I got a lot more ‘help’ than my male colleagues. One site manager even used to warm my wellies for me (as he assumed that’s what I’d want!)I also once got asked for a job interview, simply out of the employers’ curiosity as to what a female engineer looked like. There was no malice in it, just basic curiosity due to so few women in the industry. I could have been offended but basically, I got the interview that I wanted and that is all that mattered. Take the advantage, every time.

It is important to blaze a trail for others if you can

Previous IStructE presidents would be taken to projects to look at them but I asked to go to universities and talk to the students instead. I set out to show women that engineering could be for them and what could be overcome if they truly wanted something. I look back a lot and consider what I have done  and how I did it, to get here as a woman. It made me realise that I wanted to make it easier for other women and to help all I can. I do feel like a pioneer; I was the first woman in 100 years to get the IStructE presidency and that is particularly brought home to me when I am abroad. The women I met in China wanted to touch me simply because of what I have achieved. It was extraordinary. They needed to know that a real woman could do this.

Pioneers – take note:

Make sure that if you are seeking to make in-roads to a profession that is male-dominated, that you really want it. That’s what keeps you on course. Have courage. And ultimately, take the opportunities as they come. There will be things you don’t like, but seek to see the opportunity. I was on a job where, because I was the only woman, I was jokingly asked to make the tea. Now, I could have been offended… and I also could have just made it – but that would have made me look subordinate. What I said was; ‘no, make your own tea… I’ll make it next time.’ It kept things light but also marked the boundaries.

Don’t assume your ambition is obvious

I was working for an international practice and my boss decided to leave and set up his own business.  He offered me a job and a share of the business, so I handed in my notice and took up his offer.
Towards the end of my notice period, my boss-to-be suddenly changed his mind about how much of the new company he wanted to own. I wasn’t pleased but he wouldn’t budge on his demands. I realised that I had made a mistake leaving my current job, so I went back to my employers, explained, and asked if there was chance of me withdrawing my resignation. Thankfully, they not only said yes, but added that my resignation had highlighted to them how ambitious I truly was. They had assumed that because I was working part-time and had two children that I wasn’t looking to move up the ladder. Now they knew what I wanted, I was promoted and running the office within a few years.

Under pressure? Plan. And play

Being prepared relieves a lot of pressure. And do lots of things outside of work so that you have a refuge from work. My job is a very important piece of my life but it is not my entire life. Family and hobbies are my support – and my escape.
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