The challenge of being ‘the first’

The construction sector is striving to become a more diverse and inclusive industry. Here, Atkins safety engineer, Heraa Anwar, tells her story of being a BAME woman in engineering.

I was born in Manchester an only child but surrounded by a large Pakistani family. No one in my family had done engineering – it wasn’t talked about as a career option and it certainly wasn’t something us girls were encouraged to consider. 

When I started to think I might be interested in engineering, there simply wasn’t anyone I could look to and say: “You’re like me and you’re an engineer - I’m making the right decision”. This lack of role models is a real problem, even today, for girls from BAME backgrounds. 

I was also discouraged from a career in engineering at school, despite being good at science and maths. Instead, my teacher talked up pharmacy as “an industry with more women and therefore more flexibility”. On reflection, this shows just how deeply engineering can still be misunderstood, despite the best efforts of STEM campaigns.

Luckily for me, I ignored my teacher’s advice, primarily because I preferred the university that offered my degree choice: chemical engineering. 

My family, despite their reservations about engineering, were hugely proud of me – they were simply worried about post-graduation career prospects. For them, the perceived certainty of studying law or medicine just wasn’t there. Since graduating, I have had more of my female cousins asking me what it’s like to be an engineer – it’s great to know that the path I’ve chosen has helped them think about engineering as a possible career choice. 

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of people on my chemical engineering course at Heriot-Watt University were male, and mostly white – and I expect that’s the case on a chemical engineering course anywhere in the UK. That said, I was actually quite lucky that five of the 30 people on the course were females and a few of those from a BAME background. I did get some weird looks when I walked into classes or when I told people I was studying ‘chemical engineering’, but on the whole my university experience was hugely positive. And I know part of that is down to having people from similar backgrounds on the course with me. 

"When I joined Atkins, I didn't feel any different from the other graduates,which I think speaks a lot for the company's culture. It didn't matter that I was a 'brown' woman - what mattered was my education and my career choice."

So, when I joined Atkins, I didn’t feel any different from the other graduates, which I think speaks a lot for the company’s culture. It didn’t matter that I was a ‘brown woman’ – what mattered was my education and my career choice. 

As my career has progressed though, I’ve been taken back to my younger years where I’ve really felt the lack of role models. Across the industry, I simply don’t feel I have a woman from a BAME background I can look to and say: “she’s made it to a senior role in safety engineering, so can I”. This really makes you start to question yourself and to think: “Am I really good enough to be the first person from my background to do this?”

We see a real drop off of women, and especially BAME women, in senior roles in engineering. I think there’s an ingrained, and truly unconscious, bias that people have where they promote and mentor people who are similar to them. Perhaps they see themselves in this person and want to give them the opportunities they had or didn’t have?  I’m not saying that this is in any way intentional; it’s simply something we need to recognise and start making real steps towards addressing. This can be done through initiatives like unconscious bias training and reverse mentoring; things I’m really pleased to see already happening at companies like Atkins. 

So, what is the key to a more diverse and inclusive industry? For me it’s about mentoring and a willingness to promote people who are different. It’s also encouraging more men to get involved in diversity groups – you don’t have to be a BAME woman to attend an event about BAME women in industry. We also need to target our schools, ensuring our teachers understand what engineering is and why it’s a good career fit for everyone (even women!). 

But, more than anything, I’d like to see good role models – BAME women who lead and have a place at the top table.  When this starts to happen more widely across the industry, we won’t ask ourselves whether we can be the first; we’ll have proof that it can happen.   

Heraa Anwar is a safety engineer at Atkins.

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