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International Women's Day 2021

Denise Bower executive director of external engagement discusses how she got into engineering.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme of #ChooseToChallenge, reminds me that people can sometimes shy away from challenging others as it can have a negative connotation when we ought to embrace the notion of challenge as an impetus for improvement.

My interest in engineering really started in secondary school. I grew up in Leeds, UK and won a scholarship to go to Leeds Girls’ High School. Being an all-girls school there was no inbuilt cultural bias that led boys towards maths and physics and girls towards the arts and I was encouraged to build on my natural inclination towards maths, physics and geography, so when we started having conversations about careers the subject of engineering came up naturally. As soon as it did and I explored the different branches of engineering I realised that my passion was for civil engineering – I could see how it would open opportunities for making a difference to peoples’ lives; let me be involved with building big things (I’d always had an interest in history and historic buildings such as castles and cathedrals); and my dad was a builder, I had always enjoyed my visits to site with him.

This was all confirmed through a great work experience opportunity that my school organised, so I applied to study civil engineering at UMIST, in Manchester, UK. As the first person in my family to go to university I was determined to make the most of my time there so I actively sought out sponsorship opportunities that would enable me to work while studying and engage with other civil engineers. I was awarded a QUEST scholarship from the Institution of Civil Engineers and a sponsorship from a contractor. Working on site in the summer vacation really helped me to understand the importance of team working and being collaborative. After I graduated the more time that I spent on site the more I realised that the root cause of many delays related to the conditions of contract. When an opportunity arose to study for a doctorate in that area I took it and that turned out to be a really interesting, unplanned twist in my career.

Academia afforded me greater flexibility than a site-based career would have at a time when I was starting a family. It also brought a lot of job satisfaction as I could work with amazing colleagues and students knowing that they, in turn, would go on to achieve great things in their engineering careers. I became a lecturer at quite a young age, and at that time there were very few female academics at UMIST, or indeed on the staff of engineering departments else where and I like to think that I made a contribution to breaking the mould in terms of how people perceived engineering academics. I moved to the University of Leeds in 2000 and became their first female professor of civil engineering a few years later. Looking back I would say that one of my career highlights is Degree Day, it’s always such a wonderful celebration for students, their families and staff.

I’m now on the executive board as executive director of external engagement at Mott MacDonald. What I love about my role now is the opportunities that arise everyday to connect colleagues with great subject matter expertise and their passion for problem solving with other colleagues, clients and partners who have challenges that they need to overcome.

For women who want to go into engineering I would say that it is important to build a strong network from the very start of your career. Seek opportunities that take you out of your comfort zone then draw on that network for encouragement and ideas. This year’s International Women’s Day theme of #ChooseToChallenge, reminds me that people can sometimes shy away from challenging others as it can have a negative connotation when we ought to embrace the notion of challenge as an impetus for improvement.

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