Celebrating our Women in Engineering

For International Women’s Day, Ailsa Roberts reflections on:

Expectations vs. reality of a career in engineering

Ailsa Roberts is a recently Chartered Civil Engineer and a trustee of the Useful Simple Trust. She joined Expedition straight from Oxford University and, during her five years at Expedition Engineering, has been seconded to Costain to gain site experience at London Bridge Station, as well as co-locating to WSP offices as part of HS2’s Old Oak Common Station design team.

She’s now back in the Expedition office full time and shared her reflections on the reality of working as an engineer for International Women’s Day.

What were your expectations of the career and how has it compared to reality so far?

There are so many things I had expected that turned out just to be the misunderstandings of a fresh graduate! I had plenty of generic ideas, such as needing to have a highly professional, always-efficient and eyes-solely-on-the-prize persona. I hugely underestimated the humanity of workplaces, and Expedition and the Useful Simple Trust in particular. I’ve learned that the importance of good relationships, and not just competent teamwork, extends to external as well as internal peers.

I assume I’m not the only graduate who didn’t quite appreciate the impact of commercial aspects, such as funding and contractual structures, on how projects are designed and then constructed. For example, sometimes being paid to design something in the knowledge that what will be built will be redesigned by the contractor to suit their methods. I also quickly learnt that there’s more to a construction project than the structural engineering design and it requires compromises that the idealistic graduate in me would rather not make!

Oh, and employee ownership was something that just sounded cool when I applied.

What does employee ownership mean to you now?

I’ve come to appreciate how different an employee-owned (EO) company is from one with private owners, or shareholders to answer to. In an employee-owned business (which is what it says on the tin!) it doesn’t make sense for the business to be run for any other reason than its prosperity, and profits either get reinvested in the company or shared among the people who generated it.

I also see EO as a badge of a supportive and open culture. In part, I think this arises from the founders of EO companies who chose to give them to the staff but I also think that the structure of EO perpetuates a culture of considerate, motivated and proactive employees. It would be hard to be selfish in an EO company, and my experience attending events run by the Employee Ownership Association would suggest that very few EO-ers are!

Last year I was elected by my colleagues to be a Trustee for a three-year term. Electing a 26-year old woman to your Trustee Board demonstrated to me the ability of people in the Trust to judge each other based on their work, not on what you might (unconsciously or otherwise) assume they’re capable of. In the role, I attend quarterly Board meetings but between those I work with the other trustees, the Executive Board and employee representative group to support the activities of the executive board and beneficiary initiatives and to sustain engagement.

What are your expectations for the years to come?

I’ve gained a lot of experience working on large, national infrastructure projects in lots of different roles and project phases: I have most recently been managing a study into optimising the delivery of some of the HS2 structures, and previously worked as a design engineer on the design of Old Oak Common Station. And before that, I worked at London Bridge as a Site Engineer with Costain.

It’s been interesting to see where Expedition can best add value as an SME working on projects of this scale. With our highly technical approach and conceptual design thinking, we’re unlikely to be the cheapest available to churn out such a large detailed design, but Expedition is beginning to find a way that we can bring our design thinking to heavy, process-led large infrastructure projects. And the impact has been well received. I’m excited about the opportunities to improve the value of these national projects, given their huge social and environmental impact, and hope to continue to challenge the status quo on projects like these, both at project and industry levels.

We are also working hard to find our way to respond to the Climate and Biodiversity Crisis (Expedition is one of the signatories on the IStructE’s ‘Engineers Declare’). I’ve been working with some of my colleagues to create a role dedicated to managing our response and genuinely changing our practice, as we all need to. It’s not easy to see how the construction industry will achieve the speed of response needed, but I’m lucky enough to work with people who share my commitment to doing what we can as quickly as we can. I’m sure it will keep us occupied for a few years to come.

#EO #EngineersDeclare #climate #womenonboards