To celebrate National Women in Engineering Day, New Civil Engineer speaks to Aecom’s Nayera Aslam about the work she does promoting the profession in schools.
What was the spark that generated your interest in engineering?
My father worked in the construction industry and actively encouraged me to try new things and break through boundaries. My passion for engineering was first ignited when the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994. The thought of travelling in a train, through a tunnel under water all the way to France seemed incredible to my young mind and I was determined to find out how it was possible and if I could do it too.
What do you do today?
I am a senior consultant in Aecom’s transportation team in Birmingham. I work on the preliminary designs of local highway schemes and currently project manage several schemes across the West Midlands. I also lead studies for Highways England to assess the operation of the Strategic Road Network in the East Midlands. Other projects I have worked on include developing traffic management solutions for the London 2012 Olympics and the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
As a profession engineering has quite low visibility. Imagine an engineering equivalent of The Good Wife or Grey’s Anatomy.
Nayera Aslam, Aecom
Has the profession made it difficult for you to get where you are today?
Obtaining the academic qualifications and experience to become a chartered engineer is demanding. Civil engineering is for people who are dedicated, creative and resourceful. I personally see progression through the engineering profession as a challenge to be relished rather than something that is beyond reach or difficult.
What does Aecom do to help you as a female engineer?
Aecom has a global mentoring programme called MCircles for women, which supports their long-term career progression within the company. This gives me the opportunity to develop connections with other female engineers and explore how to address the issues women face, such as returning to work after maternity leave. My local team in Birmingham has also taught and nurtured me throughout my career.
Describe the work you do with underprivileged kids.
I come from an underprivileged background myself so understand first hand that career options can appear limited. I now go into schools and colleges in deprived areas in Birmingham to talk to children and young adults about the profession, its benefits and how to become an engineer.
Do you think these kids would have thought of engineering as a profession before you reached out to them?
Engineering is not an elitist profession – it is open to all. But as engineers we rarely boast about the amazing rewards of our profession such as international travel, changing the landscape of our planet and how engineering is a well-respected, well-paid career choice. I doubt that engineering had ever been suggested as a viable future to these children before, or that they had any exposure to the breadth and depth of the profession.
How did they respond to you?
Initially, they were unresponsive but when I spoke about the projects I’ve worked on, such as the London 2012 Olympics, they became interested. They were enthusiastic about joining in the engineering activities I gave them and inquisitive about how to become an engineer and the routes they could take.
How did the young schoolgirls respond to you?
One schoolgirl asked incredulously if I really was an engineer. In fact, the girls seemed more receptive and interested than the boys.
What do you think the perception of the young girls was to engineering after you spoke to them?
Seeing a female engineer who enjoys her profession really showed them that engineering is a viable possibility and gave them the confidence to broaden their horizons and, hopefully, brighten their futures.
Do you know anyone else from your peer group at school who got into engineering?
I went to an all-girls school and of a year group of 125 students, only one other girl went into engineering but she no longer works in the profession.
How did your parents respond when you said you wanted to be an engineer?
I did a degree in civil engineering at Birmingham University. At first, my parents were concerned about me joining a male-dominated profession but were very excited about the career opportunities that lay ahead. They encouraged me to rise to the challenge and excel.
Do your parents agree that it was the right decision now?
My parents now see the value of a career in engineering and actively encourage other young people into the profession, particularly young women.
What more can be done to encourage more youngsters to think of the engineering technician route?
As an industry, we need to promote the benefits of earning while learning – all at the same time as making career progress. Today’s apprentices and technicians should also be encouraged to bring on tomorrow’s talent through opening youngsters’ eyes to the wonders of engineering.
As a profession engineering has quite low visibility – contrast this with the medical and legal professions. Imagine an engineering equivalent of “The Good Wife” or “Grey’s Anatomy”.