Women of the Road Part 1: The Engineer

Today is International Women’s Day* Yay!

To celebrate, we’re giving you the first of four blogs about sistaz with skillz! (Sorry, my daughter is listening to hip-hop in the background as I write.) Driving has traditionally been a male industry, but there are amazing women doing stuff in this field that may surprise you – and will certainly impress you.

Our first Woman of the Road is a civil engineer working for Highways England, Freda Rashdi. We asked her some questions about being a woman in her industry.

Freda and daughterFreda, what made you want to become an engineer?

Well, I’ve always been practical, but I had some great influences while I was growing up. My dad was really into maths and my mum’s Norwegian, so she instilled in me her Scandinavian views on gender equality. I was the girl who built Meccano cars for her Barbie doll!

Then I had some fantastic teachers – particularly at middle school – who encouraged me in everything I did. I also had a neighbour who was one of the very first female actuaries. (An actuary’s a statistician who calculates risk for insurance companies.)

How long have you been an engineer?

I graduated in 1987 with a BSc (Hons) in Civil Engineering from Manchester University. Then I became a Chartered Engineer and a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1993. So, 30 years in total!

What exactly is a civil engineer?

Civil engineering is all about helping people and shaping the world.

They keep us switched on and powered up by supplying electricity and gas to our homes. They give us clean water and purify it so we can use it again. They build all sorts of things so we can get around, from roads and bridges to railways and airports.

How do you find being a woman in this profession?

I’m in a very small minority, of course, but by the time I started work I’d got used to being a woman among loads of men. For example, at school I was the only girl in my A-level physics class, and at university I was one of five young women out of a class of 50.

My first job was on the Channel Tunnel construction site and, because I’d become used to being the only girl, I had no issues whatsoever. Working on a construction site isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (long hours in all weathers), but I loved it. The banter was amazing and, to this day, I rely on what I learned on site. I’m really happy to say that I never once experienced any discrimination from the labourers or fellow engineers (and they were all fellows!).

However, over my 30-year career I’ve had to try harder to prove I have at least the same abilities as my male counterparts. There’ve been occasions when I’ve been overlooked for opportunities I felt ready for. But, ultimately, this has increased my resilience and determination. I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved.

Have attitudes towards you changed since you started? If so, how?

Possibly, but I think that’s because I’ve changed. I’ve gone from being a shy young woman, not very confident in her abilities, to what I am now – recognised for my wide range of knowledge and experience. It certainly toughens you up!

What’s the best thing about your job?

Without a doubt, the variety. And by that I mean the people I work with, as well as the actual work I do. I lead a number of teams in developing solutions which will improve how Highways England operates its road network. This can mean anything from researching new ways of keeping ice and snow off our roads, to working with Transport for Greater Manchester in influencing demand for our roads.

How do you think we can encourage more women into engineering?

This is a real challenge, as stereotypes are formed at a very young age, even before girls start school.

It’s disappointing that the number of women engineers hasn’t increased significantly since I graduated. I think women engineers in particular should play an active part in promoting their profession and recognising that they’re role models for the next generation.

There are lots of ways to do this – for example, by becoming a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) ambassador. STEM ambassadors provide support, ideas and opportunities to anyone who wants to promote these subjects and related careers.

Personally, I’m trying to do my bit. I’m the Science Link Governor at my local secondary school and help run the local monthly children’s science club in my town. I’ve also just helped our local Brownies achieve their Science Investigator badge. And at work I provide relevant training and placements for our civil engineering graduates.

Civil engineering is a great career for anyone, but I’d really like to see more young women join us. If you’re interested in becoming a civil engineer, visit the Institution of Civil Engineers’ website.

*It’s International Men’s Day on Sunday 17 November this year.