Celebrating International Women’s Day

To celebrate International Women in Engineering Day, we spoke to Catherine Campbell, a sustainability and quality engineer for AG Paving and Building Products

Catherine spoke to us about her lifelong passion for engineering and breaking down barriers in the construction industry, as well as some of the challenges faced by women in engineering and construction.

How did you get into the construction industry, and what drove you to the sector?

I have always been interested in engineering and construction; I can remember announcing that I wanted to build my own buildings when I was around eight years old! I was fascinated with the design and construction phases of a building as well as interior design.
I was also focused on the environment and joined an environmental club at the age of nine – so I suppose it has been a natural progression to my current role.

Throughout school, I loved Maths and Physics and initially considered studying architecture at university. However, after a conversation with my career advisor, she suggested that my interest in these subjects would lend itself well to a civil engineering career, which would still involve dealing with the design of buildings but would also allow me to use these subjects. I took her advice and went on to study civil engineering.

When studying, I took a real interest in the environmental side of the subject. In fact, all of my dissertations always seemed to be on concrete, and eventually, I merged my love of the environment and design together in my current role!

After my masters, I embarked on a KTP (knowledge transfer programme) with Queens University and AG, one of the UK’s leading manufacturers of innovative concrete products.
The project involved designing a new product which would use environmentally friendly material substitutions as well as have surface protection that would increase the durability and longevity of the product. The overall aim of the project would be to help reduce urban heat islands in large cities.

My initial focus was on the quality side of things, concentrating on product replacements and introducing new processes. I then made a natural progression to the carbon footprint side of the company. I supported AG’s sustainability agenda, focusing on bringing the sustainability and quality departments together. After my KTP, AG offered me a role, and I have been here ever since.

What does a typical day look like in your role?

A typical day doesn’t exist – no two days are the same. One day I might be in the lab conducting trials or testing new products. On other days I can be found on the factory floor carrying out full-scale factory trials, working with my colleagues to ensure everything is running smoothly, standards are being met, and audits are up to date. If any issues are uncovered, we work together to get it fixed quickly and efficiently.

I am also responsible for monitoring our products, so I spend a lot of time with my hard hat on outside in the yard. This gives me a good opportunity to see the products and try and find ways of reducing the cement content – which is a massive factor in sustainability. At AG, we are always trying to use more sustainable alternatives.

I look at carbon calculators and measure our carbon footprint, so I spend a lot of time looking at biodiversity. I can often be found planting native wildflowers, purchasing pollinator-friendly hedges, or researching and sourcing environmentally friendly material alternatives to trial for use in the factory.

My typical day is very busy and involves a wide range of tasks, but it is never monotonous and is never boring.

When you’re working on-site, do you come across many other women working in the sector?

No, I would say that this is definitely a male-dominated industry, and most women working in the sector tend to be office-based. I am often the only female in a large group of people.

However, the number of women in construction jobs is steadily growing, and this is great. I would love to see more females in high-level jobs who can inspire the next generation of girls to come into the industry.

My advice to any woman thinking of a career in construction is to go for it!

Only 15% of the construction workforce is female, according to the Office for National Statistics. What factors do you think contribute to this statistic?

There is no doubt that women are underrepresented in this industry, and I think that is largely down to an outdated way of thinking that construction and engineering is a ‘man’s job’ – we definitely have some work to do in challenging societal gender conceptions relating to a career in the construction industry.

However, there are also so many people within this industry that recognise and celebrate the value women bring.

There is also a lack of awareness of just how rewarding a career in this industry can be. I think education starts at the school level. I will always be thankful to my teacher for opening my eyes to this industry. There are so many opportunities within the construction sector, and you can make a real difference. The work that we are doing at AG will inform how and why we do things in the future, and it is special getting to be part of that. Showcasing these opportunities to girls in education is one way to encourage more girls to consider a career in construction.

Do you ever come across sexist rhetoric when you’re in the field?

There are certainly people within this industry that are surprised to see a woman working there, and unfortunately, some people do have an outdated opinion on whether this industry is suitable for women. Fortunately, the females in this industry are really challenging and changing that perception. I am glad to be surrounded by so many supportive and encouraging male colleagues who have created an inclusive working environment in which I have been able to thrive.

Times are changing, and hopefully, we will continue to see more female engineers and construction workers entering the industry.

When I was at university, there were 80 people in my civil engineering class, and only six students were female – this highlights the lack of female representation right from the very start.

What do you think are the biggest challenges women face in the construction industry?

I think a big challenge is being viewed as equal to their male counterparts. Being a woman in construction means you are outnumbered, which can make women wary of taking charge – especially for those new to the industry.

There are people with an outdated view that questions whether construction is an industry for women, and that can be challenging – although I am glad we get to debunk that myth every day!

Most people I encounter are very supportive. When I am on the factory floor I am usually the only female there, and I find that my male colleagues are encouraging and always willing to help me learn – in fact, I am often told how great it is to see a woman in my role. Hopefully, as time goes on, this will be less of a rarity.

As more women enter the industry it will also help foster a more inclusive environment. Companies like AG are playing their part in breaking those gender barriers for women, and it is great to be a part of.

Have you noticed any positive changes or improvements in terms of gender equality within the construction industry throughout your career?

I have. For example, I’m part of the Mineral Products Association (MPA) of Northern Ireland. When I first joined it was extremely male-dominated, with only a few female members. Nowadays, there are more women in engineering and construction than ever before, which is great to see and highlights the growing representation of women in the industry.

We’ve also created new groups such as ‘Women in Construction’, which is an all-female group that aims to encourage more women to enter the construction industry. It is also a fantastic support for those pursuing a career in the sector and encourages you to go for those ‘big’ jobs.

I do believe groups like these are so important for educating and empowering women.

In your opinion, what can companies or organisations do to attract and retain more women in engineering and construction roles?

Ultimately we need less bias in the sector – women should be judged for their skills and knowledge and not their gender.

Women in engineering and construction are still a rarity, and this needs to change. We need to actively promote construction as a viable and rewarding career for women.

Inclusivity needs to be embedded in company culture – and this starts at the very top. Women should be supported within their roles and offered appropriate training.

We also need more visibility; there needs to be a clear message that there is nothing strange about a woman working in the construction industry. This can begin at school when students are picking their A-levels and considering what to study at university.

It is also important that young girls can see people like me forging a successful career in the industry. This shows them that women in engineering and construction can be in charge. We need to change the narrative that engineering is a career for males.

Did you have many female role models to look up to when you entered the industry?

No, not really. Sadly, I never came across any female engineers. Women tended to work in the sales or finance departments; there were no females working in the lab.

However, now there are more people like me who are able to show people that it is possible, and this encourages more women to enter the industry.

I think it’s important to show that there are so many different aspects to a career in engineering; it is not all about heavy lifting. For example, a lot of the work I do is centred around sustainability and wildlife; these are really interesting subjects that are not what people think of when you mention you work in engineering. You wouldn’t think a concrete manufacturer would work on biodiversity, but I do.

For any woman considering a career in the industry – go for it. There are so many opportunities for you.