What's it Like to be a Woman in Construction?

Noemi Arena is a Sustainable Engineering Manager for a leading UK contractor and has an Engineering Doctorate in Sustainability for Engineering and Energy Systems. She is an IEMA Practitioner and sits on the IEMA Impact Assessment Network Steering Group. Noemi is dedicated to engineering and to using it creatively in the pursuit of sustainable development.

This is the fifth in our series of posts by women working in the construction industry about the issues they face. Please see the introductory post for why we are running it.

Image source Department of Transport licensed under Creative Commons

I decided to be an engineer because I have always had interest in the environment field and all the problems related to it. Engineers are always accused to be one of the main cause of the environmental pollution and all the impacts due to their job. Well, I have another vision of engineers: I see them (us) as also those that can reduce this impact and use their creativity to find alternative solutions more sustainable and that can actually be good for the environment and people. I didn’t say to anyone that I wanted to be an engineer. Everyone thought I was going to do the exam to enter medicine. But then I didn’t. The reason why I didn’t tell anyone is because when there is something about my future and my life it is very difficult that I ask anyone for a suggestion. My dad is a chemical engineer and I didn’t want him to be too involved in my choice. I think the fact he was a chemical engineer had an influence on my choice but because I wanted it to be my choice I have preferred to make it on my own. When I told everyone they all were surprised but happy and supportive. Probably my mum would have preferred me to be a doctor but she never explicitly said that.

The Chemical Engineering of my year had a good percentage of females. I don’t think I can say 50:50 but definitely we were 30%. It is the ambition that was different. I am one of the few that moved country and followed their career. Most of them made easier choices. The result is that they have a family now and I don’t…because inevitably it is like this. You can’t have both or you can but at least for me I needed to establish myself, to create a career and future and only recently I have the possibility (financial and work-related) to start thinking of having a family.

What I do is sustainable engineering: I use the art of being an engineer to develop engineering solutions that are also sustainable for the environment and our society. This is not always easy as you can imagine. Why? Because every time you suggest something different, something new, people are afraid especially in an industry like ours where making wrong decisions could be very dangerous for people. This is very often a cause of frustration for me because I believe a lot in what I do and very often I feel powerless in getting people to understand how important it is.

I can’t say that being a female and being young has made things easier. Several times I had this feeling and this doesn’t help your motivation but it does make you stronger, I can definitely say that! Sadly it also means I become less friendly and more cold. Well, I am not at all a cold person but in a work place I am. I have put on a sort of mask to be more “bossy” which really doesn’t represent me. I take out this mask when I am surrounded by male colleagues who show discomfort being with a female at (in theory- but it is very difficult for them to accept) their same senior level.

The first year of my PhD I had to supervise two Masters students. After we met they went to the professor and asked to change the supervisor because I was “too hot and girly”. Clearly he didn’t allow this change but he told me. It was very difficult for me as I was clearly just 3 years older than them and I needed to be respected. What I did was just talking with them asking for respect which they gave me only after 3 months I would say. The year after I had other 2 male Masters students. They didn’t complain but the lack of respect was the same in the beginning and again I had to work on how to create this respect. I hate not being myself in this kind of situations but sometimes I have to in order to have respect.

When I used to work in Italy I was the material design manager for a company and in my site there where 50 male colleagues and….zero female colleagues What I basically had to do was deciding which materials we had to use in our plant, so you can imagine that it was a role with a lot of responsibilities. I spent the first month of this project convincing my colleagues that spending time looking for the best material not only for performance but also for environmental impact was a good thing to do. Succeeding in convincing them that what I was saying was right and making them doing what I was asking them to do, was the most difficult experience of my life but it made me absolutely confident in myself. I face this sort of problem quite often but thanks to my past experience I can definitely say that I know how to handle it and how to not-loose the confidence in myself.

I moved to the UK because I needed a change and my job wasn’t giving me any satisfaction. You know, when you study engineering you sacrifice a lot: weekend studying, summer holidays reduced by 70% and all this sort of things. When you graduate not always you face a world welcoming your skills...it is not as if they were waiting for you. In Italy I had a good job but that wasn’t justifying the years I spent studying. So I reinvented myself. I decided to move to England because at the University of Surrey there was this Engineering Doctorate programme in Sustainability for Engineering and Energy Systems which was exactly what I wanted: a way of being an engineer but providing solutions for a sustainable development. So I moved. If I had stayed where I was I would now have two kids probably and a better “social life” but I wanted to challenge myself and make something good of all those years of studying and sacrifice…and actually I put myself through other 4 years like those because a PhD is even harder. I can’t say that now I am happy with my career because I have still a lot of challenges to beat but for sure I grew up a lot. You may be wondering if I miss/want a family and regret this choice. I don’t regret it but I do miss my family and I miss not having created one yet. I do envy very often my university mates or my non engineer female friends who have created one. What gives me the energy are my parents and my female colleagues who made it. Later than others but they are managing perfectly their lives and families.

I think that in 2018 the industry has become more open minded but I honestly still sit in a meeting with only men quite often and it surprises me if there are more women present.

What can we do to attract more women? Showing how being an engineer means being creative and making everyone not afraid of accepting this creativity.

If you are a woman working in the construction industry and would like to contribute to this series of posts then please contact me via LinkedIn or the contact page on the COMIT website.


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