International Women in Engineering Day: Engineering heroes

Innovation June 23, 2021

By Sydney Hougrand, Environmental Consultant

Today, Wednesday, 23 June, is International Women in Engineering Day (INWED). Organised by the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), INWED is an international awareness campaign that raises the profile of women in engineering and focuses attention on the amazing career opportunities available to women and girls in this exciting industry. This year’s theme is ‘engineering heroes’, celebrating the amazing work that women engineers around the world are doing, not just in response to the pandemic but also to support lives and livelihoods every day.

Throughout history, in engineering and science, women have regularly paved the way toward significant discoveries and breakthroughs, often with little recognition. When beginning my undergraduate studies in environmental science, if asked about a woman in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), I could have only given a single name: Marie Curie, arguably one of the most famous women in history. I progressed through my undergraduate degree surrounded mainly by male students, colleagues and professors, taking note of the under-representation of women in STEM. However, the few women I knew in the field were (and are) strong role models, pushing boundaries and making a difference in the world around them, regardless of representation. Of course, the number of women in the industry and recognition of their input are improving, but there is still some way to go and it is the women already in these industries, and their male allies, who are really paving the way for a more diverse future.

In my third year of university, I took an elective module in climate assessment that was, in many ways, life changing. The module was engaging and inspiring as it solidified many of my personal values, but what inspired me most was learning about governmental bodies, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Council for Science (ICSU), the US National Academy of Sciences and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In these bodies, and several others, female researchers and political leaders had made significant contributions to the leadership, assessments and policies that drive global climate change initiatives. Women like Susan Solomon, who chaired the climate science working group for the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, and Christiana Figueres, who led the international climate negotiations as the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, have been inspirational to me as key contributors to the field I was trying to find a foothold in.

When I graduated from university in 2016, I applied for countless positions across the United States before landing a position as a restoration officer in Chicago, where I worked as an ecologist and habitat manager. While the role was interesting and challenging, it didn’t feel like I was doing enough to live up to my engineering heroines, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted more. I started researching other roles that could get me closer to a career where I would drive real change.

Inspired by the women around me, and with a passion for creating a sustainable future, I decided to change my direction, moved to the UK and began a master’s programme in environmental impact assessment (EIA) at the University of Manchester. Soon after, I joined RSK. RSK boasts a broad network of women in STEM that has enabled me to work alongside female engineers from every sector of environmental engineering. I am inspired daily by the leadership of the EIA team, including Associate Director Katie Barlow, and I have been actively encouraged by (now retired) founding director Sue Sljivic and RSK Divisional Director Sarah Mogford to act as an advocate not only for myself, but also for other junior employees. While I still hold close my engineering heroines who lead our charge into mitigating the impacts of climate change, I look to the women around me for motivation and courage to instil change from the position I am already in.