ConsultANZ recently interviewed Sumesha Durais and Riki Shutte, Civil Engineers at NorthConnex, to find out what it is like for women in the civil engineering industry in Australia.
With Civil Engineering traditionally being a male-dominated field (which the industry is trying hard to change), what first drove your interest in civil engineering?
Riki: My interest in Civil Engineering was sparked when my family moved from a small town in South Africa to Dubai at the start of High School.
In my mind, I was moving to the middle of a deserted desert but was met with one of the most modern and cosmopolitan cities in the world.
There was no lack of inspiration when it came to structures and architecture with the tallest man-made building and structure Burj Khalifa, the iconic Palm and world artificial islands and let’s not forget Ski Dubai- the first indoor ski resort – I was hooked!
Sumesha: When I was younger I had a fascination about high rise buildings and unique looking structures. I have not grown out of that fascination, all these years later.
I love looking at all and any types of structures, dams, bridges, etc. and think about how they were built.
I was privileged enough to be educated in an environment that did not limit my career aspirations based on gender or society norms. I attended an all-girls school since the age of 9.
The first time I realized the industry was so male dominated was when I sat in my first-year lectures in university and barely saw another female in the class. At that stage it was too late to allow that minor issue to stop me.
What is it like being a female within the civil engineering industry in 2018?
Riki: As a female engineer you have to work a lot harder to prove that you are capable of doing the same job as there are not as many females in the industry.
I have felt that my work is perhaps reviewed more closely than it would have been had I been a male, but I often get the feeling this is because everyone wants you to succeed.
In all the projects I have been a part of, I have been treated as an equal member of the team once I have proven my competence.
Sumesha: It is exciting to be a female civil engineer at a time like this, there is so much being built and designed all over the place, which makes the career possibilities endless.
The industry is putting more effort into encouraging females to join and stay within the construction industry.
It is still a very male dominated industry, but mainly due to historic stereotypes and the previous generations being mostly males, but hopefully we can start making a change.
What are the things you enjoy most about being a Civil Engineer?
Riki: The dynamic nature of a construction site is a very stimulating environment. Every day brings its own unique challenges and rewards.
There are always challenges to be overcome in every dimension of the project such as design, environmental concerns and safety practises. A very satisfying part of the job is that, at the end of the day, we have to produce an actual structure.
Sumesha: I have a curious outlook on most things, it sounds strange, but I enjoy being able to walk past a bridge or building and being able to understand and appreciate its design and construction, that makes it the functioning piece of infrastructure that it is.
It is also an incredible feeling to see the finished product of one of your projects and being able to say you played a role in building that the piece of infrastructure.
You are both on NorthConnex, one of the biggest infrastructure projects happening in Australia at the moment. What has that experience been like so far?
Riki: The scale of the project has also been unlike anything I have worked on in the past. It has been really inspirational to witness so many people coming together in such a well organised way to contribute to such a huge project.
Sumesha: It is incredible to work on a project of this scale, with so much going on all at the same time.
It has been a great start to my career in Australia, working for such a large company with many engineers and managers with a considerable experience base, allowing me to learn about the tunnelling industry very quickly. Tunnelling itself is not for the faint-hearted but will definitely prove a good skill set to have for future projects.
There has been a lot said in the press, media over the last 12/24months about the gender pay gap issue, with a lot of civil engineering companies pledging to do better in this area in the near future. Is this something that has affected you personally to date in your career?
Riki: When I started as a graduate engineer my mates and I were quite open with starting salaries and there was no difference in pay and I believe it is still the same now after a few years experience.
Sumesha: This has affected me previously in another job. However, I believe Bouygues has closed any previous pay gap that was an issue before.
What or who has been the biggest inspiration in your career thus far?
Riki: The few women that I have met in the industry have been a huge motivation. Seeing how they maintained their identity in an intense, male-dominated environment and being amazing site engineers made them excellent role models for me.
Sumesha: I do not have any ‘career inspirers’ so to speak. I have worked with many great leaders who have all had a few inspiring traits. What I aim to achieve is: being a fearless but approachable leader, a practical problem solver; and maintaining a positive attitude throughout.
I recently had an inspiring conversation with a female Bouygues PM who reinstated the fact that as a female in the industry it is possible to reach the same heights as our male colleagues. This has been a great introduction to my career in Australia, as I feel the industry is more encouraging to allow females to enter more senior roles within construction.
Further, what’s been your career highlight thus far?
Riki: Definitely the bonds that I have formed with my peers over the various projects that I have worked on. I have had the privilege of working with and befriending some amazing individuals!
Sumesha: A combination of a career and life highlight would be my move to Sydney.
I always thought about allowing my career to take me around the world, and a few years after graduation, here I am.
Where do you see your career heading in the distant/or not so distant future?
Sumesha: At this stage, I enjoy working with tunnel logistics and temporary structures, the latter being something I am keen to learn more about. I am also looking at doing post-graduate studies part-time in order to grow my knowledge in the project management field.
I enjoy being on the ground currently, but I am looking toward being in a more managerial position down the road. It will be a good opportunity to put my knowledge on the job to greater use in planning and programming.
Knowing what you know now if you could give yourself some career advice in retrospect to the younger undergrad Riki, what would it be?
Riki: Get as much work experience from internships as possible to get exposure to the different Civil Engineering industries as you can specialise in transport, hydraulics or structures to name a few.
Sumesha: If you have a question, ask it. Every question is a valid question. Grow a thick skin – construction is not the career where you can wear your heart on your sleeve. Attitude is everything. A positive mindset is key to finding solutions.
And finally, any advice to any recent school leavers (whether female or male) who may be interested in pursuing tertiary education and a career in Civil Engineering?
Riki: We need more women in engineering! Civil Engineering can be a very rewarding career path. However, site engineering is not for everyone. As I mentioned previously, there are many different aspects to civil engineering. Job shadowing is a great way to get a sense of the day to day responsibilities of someone in the position you are aiming for.
Sumesha: Go for it, it’s not the easiest degree to obtain but it will be worth it at the end. There are also many different facets of civil engineering to be involved in, if the construction field is not for you, you can always consult, advise or even be a salesperson. The career is what you make of it.
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