For International Women’s Day, Fiona Wyatt, Civil Engineer and Associate at Expedition, reflects on being a ‘Woman in a Man’s World’.
What inspired you to become an engineer?
My choice to study Civil Engineering at Bristol came after a chance encounter with a female engineer at a careers fair, who totally inspired me about the possibility of engineering and opened my eyes to the creativity it could offer. Having always had an aptitude for numbers, and problem solving, I was concerned that a future in a ‘maths’ discipline may be rather dull, however she showed me her exciting portfolio of projects which was far from that. Additionally, iconic structures such as Brunel’s Clifton suspension bridge have always inspired me with their legacy to society. My hope was that engineering would give me the opportunity to work as part of a team and make a visible contribution to people’s daily lives.
What is the focus of your role at Expedition Engineering?
As a civil engineer, I look at everything ‘around the structure’ of a building and the wider context of the built environment. This often has a focus of ‘water in the landscape’ and a large part of my role and our team’s work is to help unlock the potential of sites for sustainable development. At Expedition, I have the opportunity to work on the vision of a site through our master-planning offer, as well as provide daily civils support to my structural engineering colleagues.
Which has been your most challenging project to date and why?
It has to be Selfridges. The logistics of mapping work programmes around the live operations of a major retail department store are challenging. I find it fascinating to investigate the ageing systems in place, try and understand how they have evolved, then analyse and problem solve in a busy and constrained environment running to a very tight programme. It is like forensic diagnostics and as such it is an exciting project to work on.
What project would you love to work on?
The Thames Tideway, because of its scale and significance. I love the thought of its challenging environment, and I’m sure the tunnelling aspect would be fascinating. I’m also drawn to its societal legacy in terms of improving the quality of people’s lives as well as the quality of London’s environment.
Does being a ‘woman in a man’s world’ resonate with you and your work?
Very much so when I studied – there were 6 girls and about 60 boys on our course at Bristol, and we did feel rather outnumbered! Although it did have its perks – I met my husband via the course.
Once working, I spent two years on site doing very physically demanding work which was challenging in a different way. Ultimately it was a positive experience – I was well supported and respected by my peers and managers on site – but it took quite a while for the ground workers to adjust to a young female telling them what to do! However, by getting stuck in and working together, I earned their respect, and by the end of the two years we had a fantastic team dynamic.
As my career has developed it has been encouraging to see more and more woman join the industry. Certainly, at Expedition being a ‘woman in a man’s world’ is less pronounced, and it is encouraging to see such a large number of female leaders within the Trust here. This may have something to do with working in the specialisms of water and sustainability that tends to attract more women, but I’m happy to say in the office context I don’t feel gender has a huge role to play.
Do you have a role model / heroine?
My mum. She has always been my champion, encouraged my independence and helped me to get to where I have today. Her great grandfather was an engineer and she opened my eyes to the possibilities engineering could have, and gave me the confidence to be one.
What’s your vision of the future for engineering?
To ‘humanise’ it! I’m often frustrated by how little is known about engineering, and feel it deserves more recognition from Society. Engineering helps the world go round, and I’d like to see a better general understanding by people as to how it impacts their daily lives.
I would also like to see equal opportunities for men and women; we still have a way to go. Being a mum, I understand the challenges this entails, but thankfully Expedition are a company that value their employees and enable flexible working.
What’s your advice for young women interested in engineering?
Find out more about the buildings and infrastructure around you – Ask yourself what you like and dislike about them? Or what could make them better from a user’s perspective?… Then think “I could help achieve this!” Take all the opportunities that come your way to get some experience. You don’t know until you try! There are lots of engineers willing to pass on knowledge and learning – so be brave and make contact.