Why i side-stepped the dance for an engineering career

To mark this year’s International Women In Engineering Day, graduate engineer Brittany Harris talks about the particular challenges of being a woman in international development.

Engineering development: understanding the needs of the community you are designing for
Engineering development: understanding the needs of the community you are designing for
  • Updated: 23 June, 2017
  • Author: Brittany Harris, Graduate Engineer at BuroHappold Engineering

Over the weekend I was talking to a carpenter who asked me “Why did you go into engineering?” and it got me thinking.

To be honest, until the age of 16 I was planning on a career in musical theatre. I had a diploma in singing and many years of theatre training under my belt. But at the last moment I switched from studying music, art and drama at A level, to mathematics, physics, chemistry, art and politics.

I knew I had to find a career that allowed me to exercise both the artist and the scientist within me and so I stumbled upon engineering. At first I was not convinced as I was still very much in love with the idea of a bohemian lifestyle. However, on leaving school I followed another passion for travel and charity work and offered my limited skills in Uganda.

It was there in Uganda that I truly grasped the scale of the challenges faced around the world. Infrastructure facilitates development and growth in all countries – reliable, clean water supports health and learning, roads and transport support connectivity and trade, and telecoms and the internet connect people.

I wanted to contribute to making a better world for people from all walks of life on a scale that could affect thousands. I also wanted to develop skills that would make me truly valuable in these environments.

I studied at the University of Bristol and found a whole new bohemian life as an engineer in international development. I volunteered with charity Engineers Without Borders and the skills I learned have already taken me to Peru and Kenya and supported projects in Benin, India and Zimbabwe.

As a woman in these environments it can be challenging, particularly when working onsite in an excavation in Hong Kong (traditionally it’s bad luck for women to go underground and many of the labourers were suspicious of my presence) but all of these challenges have made other aspects of my work far easier to handle and I believe I am a better engineer for it.

Working in development has taught me the importance of listening to the community you are designing for and understanding their true needs and desires, not what we perceive they need. As a woman you may not be taken seriously or listened to but you are often perceived as more approachable in these environments and as such it becomes a huge advantage, particularly when working with other women.

Since graduating I have joined BuroHappold Engineering in their water team, was an ICE President’s Apprentice and New Civil Engineer (NCE) Graduate of the Year. These are not just titles to collect but points of entry into a world of influence in which I hope to learn more from older, wiser engineers and where I can bring new and challenging propositions forward to them.

Speaking at the NCE Graduate Awards
Speaking at the NCE Graduate Awards

I am currently running a campaign with the NCE to engage civil engineers in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

I chose civil engineering because it deals with and influences many of the huge challenges we face all around the world. It combines my love of science and art and allows me to work with people with a huge range of skills and interests.

Being a woman in engineering can be challenging but overcoming challenges is what makes great engineers.

There was some satisfaction in telling the carpenter, “yes, I am an engineer and a woman and I love it”.

International Women In Engineering Day 2017 is on 23 June.

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