Career women: class of 2001

As the government calls for more women to enter the engineering profession Bernadette Ballantyne asks her former engineering classmates about their career paths.

The lack of women in engineering has been at the forefront of media attention in 2014. As a former civil engineer that graduated in 2001 and worked in consultancy before moving into journalism I studied with several bright young female engineers in the late 1990s at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST, now part of Manchester University). I set about reconnecting with them to discover how many had gone into engineering roles, whether these promising graduates had remained within the industry. And if not what other career paths had opened up to them.

The results paint a very positive picture about the opportunities that studying engineering offer. Of the 10 of the women that I was able to contact, (which was nearly all of the females) eight are now working in engineering related roles, and two have built successful careers in other sectors.  Not only that the group are excelling in their roles, winning national awards, working on high level government projects and most importantly enjoying their work. 

Over half are now working for leading consultants such as Atkins, Arup, Mott MacDonald and PricewaterhouseCoopers, while others are client side with the Highways Agency, United Utilities and Guernsey Water. All of them said that it was relatively easy to get a job, having several offers after graduation and none of them had suffered recession redundancies that blighted the sector.

The most popular choice by far has been consulting and the group pointed to a variety of reasons for that. Some said that it was due to the variety of work available, others to the mix of site and design experience offered. A few said they just preferred to be office based and as one of the group said “I didn’t fancy spending most of my days outside in the rain.” A common comment was that consulting offered more flexibility than site work, which enabled a better balance between work and family life.

Maria Manidaki

Two of the engineers are now at consultant Mott MacDonald including Maria Manidaki who is now a sustainability leader at the firm. “After UMIST, I did an MSc in Environmental Economics and then took a few months off travelling before I returned to the UK and found a job with Mott MacDonald in Yorkshire,” she says. This meant working in the Mott MacDonald Bentley joint venture (MMB JV) being both onsite and doing design which accelerated Maria’s progress, enabling her to become chartered in just three years. “I got some really good design and construction experience on water and wastewater infrastructure including some of the biggest projects in the UK,” she says. She then worked on designing renewable energy technologies before working on energy efficiency schemes for Yorkshire Water. After developing an energy team within the Mott MacDonald Bentley joint venture she moved south. “I decided I wanted to get more strategic planning experience in water in the UK and overseas with a stronger focus on sustainability and carbon so I moved to our water headquarters in Cambridge,” she says where most recently she has been contributing to Mott MacDonald’s work on the government’s Infrastructure Carbon Review.

Nicky Leighton

Another water industry specialist is Nicky Leighton who joined consultant Parkman (which became part of Mouchel in September 2003) after graduation. “I knew that I wanted to do civil engineering ever since I was little. I think I liked the idea of building things and I knew that meant undertaking a vocational degree. I had an uncle who was a civil engineer in the US and he used to build playgrounds, incredible playgrounds imagined by children and he made them into reality.”

Nicky now specialises in network modelling and has been seconded to water company United Utilities having progressed up from engineer to project manager with Mouchel. 

Catherine Harris

Catherine Harris has also built a successful career in the water industry and recently moved from consulting to become a project engineer in the wastewater sector at Guernsey Water. “The role challenges me technically. I am doing detailed design, outline design and everything in between. It also challenges me commercially as I have more responsibility for the contractual arrangements and management,” she says. At the same time Catherine wants to encourage more young people to embark upon an engineering career. “There are few Chartered Engineers on the island, especially female ones. I hope to work with States of Guernsey to help civil engineers gain their qualifications, and with schools to promote engineering in general, especially to girls.”

Sarah Leavey Tod

Sarah Leavey Tod was one of the few girls to start her career with a contractor after graduation having been inspired to study civil engineering by a major project happening right on her doorstep in Kent, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Joining Skanska in 2000 as a student engineer, Sarah started out as a chain girl. “I was the only woman onsite and I progressed from the bottom up. It could be rather dirty and macho at times but I didn’t mind it, it was a great experience,” she says. She then became a graduate environmental engineer at Skanska, before joining AMEC where she worked as a design engineer, quantity surveyor and onsite project manager. After becoming chartered in 2007 Sarah decided to embark upon a new chapter in her career becoming a project management specialist at one of the world’s “Big 4” consulting firms; PricewaterhouseCoopers. “I was ready for a professional services environment and I needed to achieve a better work life balance,” she says pointing to the long hours onsite as being prohibitive to raising a family. “Being on site can be a bit like a travelling circus, some form a family on the project but then it can be hard to maintain that elsewhere,” she says.

Using all of the expertise she gleaned from major projects such as CTRL and large PFI hospital schemes Sarah now works in project management and governance and in the future is keen to undertake more work on delay analysis.

Amy Williams

Another high flier from the course is the Highways Agency’s Amy Williams, who spent five years in consultancy with Atkins and Babtie (now part of Jacobs), won the NCE Graduate Engineer of the Year Award in 2002, and then became chartered before moving client side. As contract assurance audit manager she essentially manages the independent  audits of the Agency’s maintenance and renewal contracts that maintain the highways network. “I always wanted to be a civil engineer and picked my GCSE choices around that. I worked in the structures teams for Atkins and Babtie but mainly worked on Highways Agency assets throughout this time.”

After joining the Agency in 2006 Amy has been a route performance manager, a project sponsor and a contract manager, while also finding time to have two children. “I work with a number of really good female engineers and have done throughout my career. My role is very busy but does offer flexibility around family life,” she says.

Professor Denise Bower

Professor Denise Bower is also a UMIST alumni and was one of just two female lecturers that taught on the course during the late 1990s. A specialist in project management she now leads the Engineering Project Academy at the University of Leeds and is the Executive Director of the Major Projects Association. “At the Major Projects Association we are founding members of the Portrait Club. This has been established to help improve the initiation and delivery of major projects by improving the gender-diversity balance,” she says, “We would really like to encourage all those involved with major projects to support this initiative as we believe that more diverse teams, particularly at the senior level, will lead to improved decision making and therefore better project outcomes. We would also like to a much better representation of senior women on the speaker platforms at key events and in the media.”

Taking an alternative route - Rebecca Barclay and Caroline Dunn

Although the majority of the group moved into engineering careers, studying civil engineering has created some great opportunities in other fields. Rebecca Barclay’s exciting career illustrates this more than most. After graduation she moved to Paris where she became the finance assistant to finance director of Virgin Continental Europe, the holding company for Virgin Music. On her return to the UK she decided to join Bechtel as a graduate trainee and had over three “brilliant” years at the company. “I worked on various projects including the Channel Tunnel rail link, Cross County Route Modernisation and bid work for major projects such a Doha Airport and Port. My final project with them was out in Romania on their motorway and was involved in the environmental impact assessments.”

After taking a maternity break Rebecca decided not to return to the London based role which meant a long commute, and so she retrained as a maths teacher.  

Caroline Dunn also took an alternative path after graduation applying for flexible graduate employment schemes in finance and insurance. She received several job offers and decided to work with RSA, which was then Royal Sun Alliance. “I was attracted to them as they had a programme of rotations where you could try out a few different job roles and find something that suited you before you made a decision.”

Today she is an executive responsible for employers and general liability insurance at world leading insurance market, Lloyd’s of London. She says that her engineering degree prepared her better for a career in insurance than many others. “The degree taught me so many things that I use every day now. A civil engineering degree gives you a broad background and a lot of the subjects such as project management, problem solving and the strong numeracy focus are useful whatever career you go into”

A flexible career choice - Katy Brown, Sarah Humphrey and Catherine Harris

Katy Brown particularly appreciates the flexibility offered in consulting having just returned to work at consultant Atkins after her second maternity break. A group engineer Katy joined Atkins after graduation and manages projects and programmes in the transport sector most recently working on rail franchising. Although she was expecting to be able to return to work part time, she was concerned about travelling so far from home to be based in the office, which was a 40 minute commute by train. Her line manager suggested that she be home based, a solution which has enabled her to return to Atkins and the rail project.

Sarah Humphrey too has been impressed with her employer Arup’s approach to her maternity leave having just extended her second maternity break by a further year. Working in the infrastructure team as a senior engineer Sarah returned to work part time after the arrival of her first child. “They were very accommodating and really supportive,” she says.

However not all firms have been this encouraging. In her previous consulting role before moving to Guernsey Water, Catherine Harris was asked to extend her maternity break for a further 6 months when she tried to return to work in 2009 after the birth of her first child. With just two days notice she was told that if she didn’t take the incentivised sabbatical she would probably face redundancy. “The recession hit everyone in different ways,” she says philosophically. “It was assumed that I would want the additional break but I just wanted to get back to work.”

In conclusion

So despite the low representation of women in the engineering sector as a whole, this experience shows that for those that do embark upon a career in the sector there is a huge variety of options available. An incredible 80 per cent of the female engineering students from one year group are now active in the industry and I am proud to have been part of this class of inspirational students who are all now incredibly successful professionals. 

If you would like to contact Bernadette Ballantyne about this, or any other story, please email