INWED 2021: About Engineering Heroes and more

23 June 2021

Happy International Women in Engineering Day!

Brought to you by the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) is celebrating its 8th year in 2021. The international awareness campaign was brought to life to raise the profile of women in engineering, and to focus attention on the amazing career opportunities available to women and girls in this exciting industry.

This year's theme is 'Engineering Heroes'. To celebrate this in style, we joined Structural Engineers Price & Myers for their first podcast episode of Design:Life.

Sarah Pellereau, Structural Engineer and Associate at Price & Myers, and Patricia Steven, Senior Engineer and Partner at Max Fordham, spoke about their joint project Bat & Ball Centre and reflected on the approach of the project's female-heavy team, the engineering world in general, and shared some wisdom and advice with the next generation of women in engineering.

You can find some of the questions posed, and their answers, below; if you’d like to hear more about what they had to say, click here to listen to the full episode.


How did you get into Engineering?

Sarah:"Maths, Physics, and Arts were my strong subjects, which naturally led to architecture and engineering. I found a really exciting course that gave me the opportunity do a bit of both architecture and engineering. From doing the course at Leeds University, I discovered I was a bit more of an engineer than an architect."


Patricia: "I have a similar story. I was quite good at Maths and Physics as a kid, but my dad’s an engineer, so I already had that as a potential route – and I was always inspired about how he could fix anything. I wanted to be able to do that too!"



You worked together on the Bat & Ball Centre. Tell us a bit about your work!

Patricia: "There were a few main aspects to this project. The main community centre is probably the most interesting aspect for us as engineers. It had these beautiful oast roofs, that were very non-typical. We tried to use them as part of the ventilation strategy, which was quite interesting – they’re so large, almost too big to have opening windows on top of them. It’s also a project where we looked at putting air source heat pumps in, which at the time were quite a new technology, so much so that we were thinking of needing boiler back-ups, which isn’t a thing that we do anymore. Air source heat pumps are great, because they use electricity instead of gas to provide heating. Of course as the national grid becomes more decarbonised, that’s the way forward."


Sarah: “There was also a residential aspect to it, and the refurbishment of an old train station, and then there was the community centre. The community centre had what I’d call a hybrid structure. The oasts were by far the most challenging to make that big volume without too many actual loads, and keep it all tidy.”


Patricia: “The station project also imposed some other technical challenges for us – as you’re so close to the train line, you have to use different electrical systems than we’d use on a typical building.”


Sarah: “With the station we also had lots of existing drainage, and actually we had a female Civil Engineer on that project as well, Billy. It was challenging to work with the existing levels that didn’t comply – they were blocked in the past because they weren’t good enough, so it was about figuring out ‘How do we use as much of the existing as we can, and just replace enough to make it functional?'.”



How did you overcome all these challenges?

Sarah: "We were a really nice, fun team, female the whole way through. We would have design meetings and just talk through problems, looking at them from an architectural, structural and M&E perspective. These meetings were very efficient. We would just work through them amongst us, and instead of having a lot of emails going round in circles, we just dealt with them hands on in the design meeting."


Patricia: “I found it really refreshing that people weren’t very precious about their things. It would be like 'Oh, I can change my thing, to make yours a bit easier'."


Sarah: "If you’ve got a good design team, one that you can easily talk to, and it’s very much open and level, it’s very easy to just pick up the phone and say ‘Oh, I’ve just discovered this’, and just have a quick conversation and help the project evolve together, rather than one person going in one direction and one person going in another and then you come to coordination and it doesn’t work. So the fact that we’ve been working all the way through with lots of easy conversations really helped – if you get along with the person across the table from you, it does make picking up the phone easier.”



What are the traits and skills that make a good engineer?

Sarah: “On the structural side, I think there’s a couple. You’ve got to have an understanding of how the building works, and you’ve got to understand how different loads and forces on the building will react. Not only in terms of maths, but also visually - understanding the different forms, and understanding that if I apply a load to a curve or a slant, it reacts differently than if I had just applied it to a straight box. Once you can understand that structurally, you can then think 'Ok, I need to do this maths or that maths to justify it'. If someone has a clear understanding of the 3D we’re trying to make, they can break it down into the 2D maths. That’s what I generally find makes a good engineer.”


Patricia: “From our side I think it’s quite helpful to understand how a building is going to be used. What are the processes? Does someone come in and turn on the lights? Does the ventilation automatically come on? All those control elements that you normally wouldn’t think of end up being quite important really. Good communication, flexibility and applying learnings from one project to another is always really helpful.”


Sarah: “The experience you get as an engineer can't be learned at university at all. You learn it from your peers, your mentors around you, your work colleagues. Different people might break down problems in different ways, and they might come up with different solutions. They might be exactly the same, they might be ever so slightly different, because there’s usually more than one way to engineer a problem – and it’s just finding that. Understanding and learning from different projects and people what the best solution is. So when you get that problem presented to you, you’re like ‘Well, here’s one solution - actually, with the M&E and the architecture that might not work, but we could look at it in another way’. It’s also important to have an understanding for each other’s disciplines. Working in practices that have a really broad range of projects, such as Price & Myers and Max Fordham, also certainly helps to build this understanding.”



This year’s INWED theme is ‘Engineering Heroes’. Do you have a personal Engineering Hero? Who is it, and why?

Patricia: “In addition to my ‘childhood engineering hero’ which was my dad, I now have a couple of  additional ones: One of them is Mary Jackson, who was an Aerospace engineer for NASA. She was the first black female engineer at NASA and one of the people the ‘Hidden Figures’ movie is based on.”


Sarah: “As a structural engineer, you sort of say Brunel, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was inspired by bridges when I first got into engineering. I remember going to see the Clifton Suspension Bridge. But then as I carried on with engineering you see the big names such as Arup. But I’m going to be honest and say when I first arrived as a graduate at Price & Myers, there were two people – Sam Price and Fiona Cobb, and everyone who’s a structural engineer now will have the Cobb book. She was brilliant, she taught me lots of things and was very patient to explain them to me, wrote things down simply if I didn’t understand them, and also made sure I had a real breadth of engineering. There’s not very many really high female structural engineers out there, but she’s got her own practice now, and she’s still a really good friend and she definitely inspires me a lot.”



Recent government data shows that while the number of women in engineering roles has almost doubled in the past 10 years, women still only account for just over 10%. Why do you think it’s necessary to encourage more women in STEM fields, and most importantly, what do you think is necessary?

Sarah: “Going back to school age, very stereotypically some of the boys might get maths and science quicker, and therefore some girls who are also really good at maths and science might shy away from it a bit. All I’m going to say is don’t – if girls enjoy lego bricks, we should just let them create and let them have fun. Girls might just engineer in a slightly different manner, but you can still fuel that excitement, be it with spaghettis or straws or whatever it might be. Get them creating. And in a strange way, at times, engineering can be like craft, which many girls naturally love. Make it fun and exciting from a really young age, so they enjoy it. Also, don’t be intimidated just because other people or friends don’t find this exciting – you still can, and you can enjoy it!”


Patricia: “I think it’s quite important for girls and women to get involved in STEM fields. Why do you want to rely on someone else to fix things? You can learn how to do it yourself, you can be that person! And: Make things – there are no many cool things you can make when you’re an engineer. And I think the diversity of experience women bring to engineering is quite useful."


Sarah: “When I was learning how to drive, I can remember my dad showing me how to fix a flat tire. Being at University on a field trip with a whole group of guys, I was the only one who knew how to change a tire on a car. And when we were doing any DIY at home, my dad would always ask me ‘Can you help me with the hammer?’, or ‘Do you want to practice sawing?', and it helped me get stuck in. I think that's really important."



If you could go back in time, would there be any piece of advice you could give your younger self?

Patricia: “Yeah I thought about this, and I couldn’t come up with anything other than 'You know, buy a Bitcoin!'. Jokes aside, I’m quite happy with the path I’ve taken.”


Sarah: “I was honest to myself as a person and I’ve ended up doing engineering which I really enjoy, and so there’s nothing really different I would tell my younger self.”



Do you have any strategic, practical advice for younger females that are thinking about starting a career in engineering?

Sarah: “When I went to University, I went and got some site experience. Nothing too elaborate, but helping in the design office on site for a big project. Seeing how things are being done has really encouraged me. A helmet and big boots isn’t a great look for anyone, but I still really enjoyed it – I was in the fresh air, and got to see all the different elements, and for me this little bit of experience just told me: ‘Yes, I’m on the right path’. I guess everyone questions it when you’re studying it at some point, there’s lots of hours and there’s bits that you need to study but won’t enjoy as much as other bits. It just helped me see that at the end of my studies I could be part of a team that creates something like this. So understanding the process has been very valuable for me."


Patricia: “If you’re interested in pursuing M&E Engineering, I would recommend joining a makers club. They seem like a lot of fun and allow you to play with things that you maybe don’t have access to otherwise.”



Any last words of wisdom?

Patricia: “Just do the thing, just try it out!”