Aurore Knight is a Principal Engineer in our Dubai office, here is her take on her career in the predominantly male dominated Middle East construction industry.
Tell us about your career to date.
I cut my teeth as a graduate engineer at the start of the 2008 recession in the UK. Due to the financial climate, I was thrown into situations normally reserved for senior engineers with responsibilities I would not normally have experienced so early in my career. Some early achievements include designing and following through to site completion on a School Academy and a University Energy Hub showcasing the latest energy efficient and renewable technologies.
When the opportunity to transfer to Dubai arose, I jumped at it, and seven years later, I haven’t looked back. Dubai’s market is unique and the scale of developments cannot be compared to the UK. What would be considered a ‘once in a decade’ project in the UK is an annual occurrence here. I have gained a breadth of industry experience which is incomparable to what it would be had I remained in the UK, fast-tracking my career development. I’ve worked on super high-rise towers, shopping malls and hotel developments, led design and site teams and held Client facing positions.
When I started with Black & White Engineering five years ago I was a design engineer. I have since scaled the corporate ladder to become a team leader, a member of our Technical Committee and a part of our UAE management team and I hold a vested interest in the companies’ future.
What drove you to get into construction and your very first role in the industry? What were some of the influences that set you on your path?
As far back as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for figuring out how stuff works. At school I was good at maths and physics, so studying to become an engineer was a natural progression. I come from a family of engineers, so my career choice was never questioned. As an engineer I have the opportunity to problem solve on a daily basis.
With some well-timed advice from my university mentor and contact with recruiters in my final year of studies, I fell into the construction industry. While it was not a conscious decision at first, I wouldn’t change it for the world. The appeal lies in the knowledge that no two projects are alike and that every project presents a new challenge, allowing me to grow as an engineer and test myself daily.
How have you made your mark in the industry by working on projects?
I believe the most important attribute to offer an employer is commitment and reliability. I want people to trust that when I say I will deliver, I will. Time management and organisation is key, as well as the ability to say no. It’s better to ask for more time, than to miss a deadline or deliver a poor-quality design.
My greatest passion is concept design. I thrive on the opportunity to explore new ways to fix an old problem, exploring new technologies and ideas. My biggest professional fear is to be pigeon-holed into only working on certain building types. With B&W, there is ample opportunity for me to work on different building types from retail malls, hotels, super high-rise, fit-outs, data centres and commercial buildings. As a company, teams are regularly rotated so that we all benefit from working with colleagues with different backgrounds and methodologies, different building types and geographical regions.
What are some of the barriers to women entering the construction industry? What was your personal experience?
The low level of female participation in the construction industry is a small part of a much wider problem. Where are all the women in STEM is the real question. The barriers for women to enter STEM careers happen at all levels, down to toy manufacturers and parents pushing STEM toys for boys and not girls, subject choices at school, career advice, low representation of women in university engineering courses (in the UK the around 16% or engineering students are women)1, through to choosing to work as a professional engineer (six months after completion of their courses only 47.4% of female graduates were in engineering roles)1, through to a lack of role models in upper management positions. This all combines to the perception that STEM employers and more specifically the construction industry is not a place which welcomes women in the workforce, and with only 9%2 of the engineering workforce being female, this perception is currently a valid one.
Personally, I firmly believe that if you assume something is impossible it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, the construction industry is male dominated, but that does not mean there are no women in construction. There are, and many are successful in the field. I benefited from being mentored by senior female engineers early on in my career, which gave me the confidence and belief that if I prove myself I would reap the reward.
With B&W, I have never felt that being a woman has hindered my prospects. I’ve had to prove my worth in different environments, in the design office, on site, facing Clients, but so does everyone else. Bizarrely, I have never had to justify my career choice amongst industry professionals, its people who are not in construction who have the loudest opinions.
I have found that the “male ego” element is more prevalent on construction sites than in the office, however, age has been just as big a barrier as sex. Some people don’t want to work with young engineers, believing that if you don’t have enough grey hairs your input isn’t as valuable. Fundamentally, talent wins out and this silences the critics.
What has been your experience of the construction industry in the UAE?
Dubai is a young, dynamic city, and this attitude touches all aspects of life. As an engineering consultant, I feel that people are less hampered by a ‘this is how its always been done’ attitude. A big contributing factor to this is the relatively young workforce, as well as a certain openness in attitude that drives you to become an expat.
Based on my experience, I would say that Developers are far more demanding here than in the UK. The level of study and critique paid by client teams as well as the value-add support expected is much higher. Developers will openly challenge your ability as an engineer and designer until you have proved your merit. The advantage of this ‘trial by fire’ approach is that everyone must prove their worth, and once this has happened, your judgement and ideas will be supported regardless of your sex.
Having spent periods on site, there is a difference in attitudes to women compared to the office environment. I still had to overcome the ‘pardon my language, delicate petal’ attitude and polite deference given to women. While this is fine in a social environment, it is an invisible hurdle in the professional one. On the flip side, having women present on site and working in client/engineering/architectural positions calms tempers in meetings, and there is a greater sentiment of ‘checking the ego at the door’ and just finding a solution to a problem. I’ve found that women were less likely to stick to a point that was wrong because to do otherwise would be to lose face.
Given the relative ease and affordability of early years childcare in Dubai, when having children the discussion revolves around when you’re returning to work, not if you are. The assumption that you are returning to work in itself is a huge boost to achieving it in reality. Most of the workforce is made up of expats who are away from there familial support networks, meaning employers by necessity have to be more flexible. There is no handy grandparent or long-term family friend to look after your children if they are sick. Employers must acknowledge this in order to retain staff. In this respect, B&W are very accommodating to personal situations.
Everyone has a part to play in diversity and equal pay. What would you like to see authorities and construction firms do to increase diversity and make pay a level playing field in the industry?
Judging people on qualifications, skill and merit should be the rule. Rather than focusing on how few women there are in construction, the focus should be on how the number of women in construction is increasing, how top management positions are being filled by women. The construction industry is always crying out for new engineers and there’s going to be a real skill shortage over the coming decade. Given that there are more women than ever at university level, this is a gap that can be plugged by women if industry provides a smoother platform for entry. This will provide an increasing number of female role models, women in senior roles and therefore changes in corporate policies which will increase the retention of women in the industry.
The elephant in the room with this subject always revolves around family and children. The attitude that once women have children they will be less invested in their professional careers is less prevalent today. Acknowledging that family is a natural part of life and planning for it, instead of treating it as a problem is a far more practical approach. Workplace flexibility is key and recognising that a sensible work/life balance directly impacts the quality of work delivered, job satisfaction and staff retention will allow women to rise to senior positions in greater numbers. Incidentally, this benefits everyone, not just women.
My experience with B&W has been extremely positive in this respect. Dubai labour law grants 45 calendar days of paid maternity leave. B&W supported me in taking extended maternity leave with little impact on my career progression, receiving a promotion between two periods of maternity leave.
The gender pay gap should not be ignored, with women across the board earning around 20% less than men for the same role. Specifically, in engineering the gender pay gap is closing with several recent studies showing a pay gap of 10%3 and 4%4. Clearly, huge strides have made on this front, and with increasing salary transparency this can only improve.
As a minority in the industry, women can push for change, ensure the subject is at the forefront of industry discussion and guide change. However, when it comes to tangible results, attracting and keeping women in the industry, workplace policies must change to make to working environment attractive to women. Male management needs to show willingness in understanding and removing the barriers in the workplace, from changing company policies around maternity benefits assisting staff retention, salary transparency to combat the gender pay gap, right down to the softer side of management such as sponsoring inclusive social and team building activities. Ultimately, every individual has a responsibility in ensuring an equitable workplace, not just women.
How do you personally push for diversity and equal pay in the construction sector?
I surround myself with fellow industry peers here in the UAE. We help each other, share our experiences and advice. This gives me the confidence to expect better of myself and for myself. Good female role models empower women to expect more and having benefited from this in my early career, I hope to one day empower the young graduate engineers to expect equality as the rule not the exception.
What advice would you give a woman entering the GCC construction industry today?
Enter the industry from a position of power and confidence. Trust that you have the ability to forge a successful career, and don’t allow anyone to convince you otherwise.
1 Diversity in Engineering, Women’s Engineering Society, September 2014
2 Skills & Demands from Industry – 2015 Survey, IET
3 Male-dominated engineering has an 87 per cent gender gap – but it pays pretty well, Daily Telegraph, 23 June 2015
4 REED 2014 engineering sector survey