As we celebrate the role of women in engineering around the world, it’s important to take time to reflect on what lies ahead.

The barriers and obstacles for women come in a variety of forms. One that I would most like to see change is fear of failure and perhaps a lack of confidence, particularly among younger women as they move from university into the workplace. It is important for women to understand that the possibilities in an engineering path are very numerous. Do not be deterred by the fear you may not have the right level of experience — or even any experience at all — before applying for a position.

What I have found, particularly at Burns & McDonnell, is that employers look for problem-solving skills with a good technical base, rather than just experience. Every engineering problem is different and therefore requires a unique solution; you don’t need to have all of the answers up front, just the ability to work through the problem.

Another important factor for women getting their start in engineering is to identify what you are most passionate about and use that as motivation as you compete for positions. Use it again later as you begin your career. Seek out opportunities, and if the opportunity doesn’t already exist, create it.

Personally, I like to think this year’s Women’s Engineering Society theme of “Shape the World” was at the heart of my motivation to become an engineer. I have always had a strong interest in sustainability and how we can transition to zero-carbon energy sources to turn our planet away from our current path.

I became an engineer almost by accident. After I had already left university and begun my career, I understood that obtaining a degree in engineering would give me my best opportunity to pursue my passion. Now at Burns & McDonnell, I’m leading our energy system decarbonisation projects in the U.K. By seeking out opportunities and always keeping that motivation to tackle climate change in mind, I’ve ended up in the dream job I never knew existed.

Since then, I have participated in several groups that advocate for and support women in engineering. The Women’s Engineering Society, among others, seeks to address some of the obstacles women face in this profession. Through these networks of like-minded women engineers, I’ve not only made industry contacts — I’ve also made some of my closest friends.

As women in a male-dominated industry we need two things: role models and allies. Visibility of female role models who have found a rewarding career as an engineer will inspire other women to enter the industry, whether at school age or as a career change. Allies amongst our male colleagues, especially those in leadership positions, are essential for holding themselves and others accountable for making policy changes to diversify the workforce. I am fortunate to work at a firm that provides more than lip service in supporting science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and is committed to opening opportunities for women.

In fact, it is crucial that men be part of the dialogue addressing some of the systemic conditions and barriers that still exist. Though we have made great progress in engineering and as a sector we are perhaps among the best in ensuring pay equity among women and men, there are still issues that must be tackled, particularly in the area of advancing women into leadership roles. One of the biggest challenges comes with the fact that those women who do choose engineering as a career direction often find it stressful to balance the needs of their families. As work demands grow, many tend to leave or take an extended break to care for their families.

This is one of the systemic and structural problems the industry must deal with. The path forward will not be easy.

There is no question that engineering projects make it hard to leave the work at the office. Tight deadlines, complex engineering challenges, and the constant challenge of meeting schedules means the job often never stops.

So how does the engineering profession tip the scales a bit more toward a reasonable work/life balance?

I believe it starts with both flexibility on the part of the employer and by women themselves coming up with creative solutions. The key is to be confident and to speak up. Don’t let fear or discouragement stop you. If you are passionate about your work and love what you do, there are often solutions that may work for both you and your employer that will not require you to put your career on hold.

Women in engineering are playing with a strong hand. There are massive needs in our world, ranging from the need to tackle climate change to the need for clean water and a more sustainable built environment.

As we all deal with the challenges of a global pandemic and likely recession, I believe we will see that engineering is as close to a recession-proof career as there is. With the massive backlog in needed critical infrastructure and the urgent need to confront the factors that are contributing to climate change, engineers are needed now more than ever.

Engineers are needed and opportunities for women are greater than ever. The question is: Are you ready to get started?


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Polly Osborne is an electrical engineer with Burns & McDonnell, working from the firm’s rapidly growing office in the U.K. She specialises in whole energy system consulting and engineering to promote a more sustainable environment.