• 17 June 2019

Impacting people’s lives

I knew I wanted a career in the built environment from a young age. My dad is a Structural Engineer and is passionate about what he does which meant that, growing up in London, I was always made aware of the structures around us. As a teenager, I was inspired by the Segrada Familia in Barcelona which was designed by Architect Gaudi. The cathedral is a monument to his style, creating structures based on strong forms found in nature, which allowed him not only to build awe inspiring spaces but also beautiful ones. His belief in the seemingly impossible has given us this magnificent structure, even by today’s standards, centuries later.

Attending an all-girls school, you rarely saw students going on to study Engineering and it was when I found my strengths in Science, Maths and Art that I seriously started to consider it as a career. I completed my Masters at the University of Leeds and it was there I gained a scholarship from the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE), permitting me to work on site for the majority of the summer holidays. One of these placements included working on various parts of the Crossrail transit line which really showed me the impact of complex planning and design. I will be incredibly excited to finally see it open to the public.

I was attracted to engineering for the impact it can have on the built environment on the everyday lives of so many people, especially in our cities. Engineers create infrastructures that play a crucial part in keeping a city working, especially when a building is used by thousands of people. It also brings together teams of creative individuals who work to deliver projects and solve unique problems.

Although there are some misconceptions that engineering is boring, I think this comes from outdated ideas that we sit in suits crunching numbers all day with no grasp on the real world around us. Whilst mathematical principles are one of the tools we use to prove our designs will work, this is far from true. The engineering process requires creativity and teamwork meaning that conversations and visual tools are just as important.

I love working with a variety of inspiring people who are pulling resources and knowledge to solve problems and ultimately produce the finished product. No one person in the team has the same experiences and it’s this diversity that helps to come up with the most innovative solutions. This is also why diversity, including but not limited to, gender diversity is so important for keeping the industry evolving.

Last year I attended the ICE big debate about ‘where will the industry be in 200 years’ time?’, which focussed around the role technology will play in our future whilst some discussed the needs of a changing society. Interestingly, no one was able to agree on the role of today’s engineers, let alone one in 200 years’ time. So, I think that the biggest challenge for the industry (today and in the future) will be allowing for flexibility in a rapidly changing environment whilst maintaining our skills and reputation.

I have been a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Ambassador since I left school and have spent a lot of time visiting primary schools in my local area to introduce children, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, to engineering. I encourage them not to let themselves be defined by stereotypes, to be enthusiastic about the subjects they enjoy and challenge their design skills by having them build towers out of newspaper. It is fascinating that so many young girls are showing just as much passion and natural talent for the task as the boys do. I hope that by introducing them to what a career in the built environment is like, it will inspire them to see it as a possible option when progressing through school, regardless of the expectations they may encounter along the way.

In this way, International Women in Engineering Day is important to show prospective female engineers and students that there is already a growing number of successful women in the industry that are here to support the next generation as role models and mentors. I think this brings a visible display of strength and a reminder that they are not alone in an industry that can still appear dauntingly male dominated.

To any women considering a career in engineering, I would tell them to be confident in their own abilities. As an engineer you are constantly being challenged and learning new things, often by getting them wrong the first time around. It is the ability to take this on board and still trust your own judgement that makes a good engineer, although this can be hard in a society that can sometimes tell young women to doubt themselves.

Charlotte Hitchens


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