If you are a young woman with an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and are thinking about embarking on a career in engineering, don’t let the statistics put you off. In the first in a short series of personal accounts, the female engineers at Ground & Water explain their routes into the profession and impart a clear message: ‘Whatever the challenges you perceive or face, there are brilliant women who have gone before you who will offer support. So go for it..!’
This is Senior Engineer, Natasha Kearl’s story…
As reported by Engineering UK in March 2022, women comprise 16.5% of all engineers; increased from 10.5% in 2010. Whilst this represents a marked increase, the proportion remains underwhelming – there is a clear disparity within engineering. Such disparity may result in feelings of apprehension or anxiety when embarking upon a career in a male-dominated field. I was no exception. Hence, it is imperative that we share our stories, that our voices are heard and that they encourage more women to consider a career in STEM.
Choosing a career path
Growing up, I was encouraged into STEM subjects, with both parents having attained degrees in mathematics (in one form or another). Whether out of genuine curiosity or out of stubbornness, I knew I didn’t want to follow entirely in their footsteps. Alas, I found myself studying at the University of Portsmouth, as my father had done previously, so you be the judge…
I was always interested in the natural world and perhaps that was what lead me to read Geography. Over time, I was party to some truly incredible field trips, taking me to the likes of Iceland, Morocco, and Finland. After I finished my undergraduate degree in Geography, I felt lost. I really wasn’t sure where I wanted to take my career. At the time, I was working in retail to make ends meet and began applying for any job that might relate to my degree, hoping I could find something I might enjoy. One of my first interviews was with Ground & Water, though I had no idea what Geotechnical / Geo-environmental Engineering was. I went to the interview convinced I wouldn’t get the offer but knowing that I would at least give it my all. As fate would have it, they offered me the job.
Overcoming personal challenges
I should probably address the elephant in the room which is that I suffer from anxiety – I was terrified to start a job I didn’t really feel qualified for. I was lucky to have a great female engineer as a mentor, Alice, who I am now grateful to call a close friend. She helped me navigate the world of engineering, client liaison and how to manage site works. I still remember our first day out in the field together. We had to go to London to do some gas monitoring. It was horrendous weather, I had to get used to wearing PPE and how to use the equipment, but also (and the absolute worst for me) having to drive the van in London. Alice really helped validate the way I was feeling and helped come up with solutions to support me in my role. I will be forever grateful for how she eased me into the role – without her, I’m not sure I would have stuck it out. That’s not to disregard my other colleagues who supported my growth, but the mentoring relationship we had was integral for my development; not only as an engineer but on my journey to tackling anxiety.
Before starting at Ground & Water, I hadn’t really acknowledged how much of an impact my mental health had been having on my life. I realised quickly that I would need to find ways to manage it. Seemingly simple tasks, from making a phone call to attending a site visit, were triggers for my anxiety and my symptoms were extreme at the start. However, Ground & Water have been both understanding and accommodating, helping me to recognise my triggers and learning how to approach them in a way that I can cope with. My younger self would not have envisaged being a Senior Engineer, heading up the contamination working group and acting as a mentor to others.
Supported to succeed
I’m so grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been afforded. For instance, I’ve been able to take part in being the lead researcher at our company for PFAS (a relatively new contaminant of concern) and our in-house working group for all things contaminated land. I am part of the Early Careers Group with SoBRA and I am on my way to getting chartered. I recently had the opportunity to talk about my career for the Women in Engineering Society at Loughborough University. It was a really rewarding event to showcase to university students what my job entails. It is a very niche field and I regularly joke that I had no idea what I was getting into when I started off. I hope to take part in more events like this to give guidance on the future of STEM by showing available options, some that I didn’t have when I graduated.
Go for it..!
Whilst there are certainly challenges as a woman in a male dominated field, I would encourage anyone who is considering getting involved in STEM to try it. There are so many brilliant women who will support you. I am so thankful to be a part of the industry, doing a job I love, and I look forward to continuing my journey.