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So this blog and others like it have exhausted the facts and figured about women in engineering and how wonderful it all is for us to be there. I want to talk about something I’ve experienced that gave a new spin on why companies should hire and promote female engineers. Not all female engineers will agree to this but there is something to say about the inherent soft-skills that women possess and how this can be put to use to the advantage of the project team.
One of the first female engineers in the South African construction industry told me that a female engineer should always be wearing a boxing glove on one hand, and a velvet glove on the other. Well most of my career thus far has involved me using the boxing glove, in recent months I’ve come to understand what the old bird meant about the velvet glove.
On my first project with my new company, I was eager to earn respect within the team as a project engineer. Somewhere along the way, I started doing more Client-interfacing. I coordinated and accompanied the Clients team to site-visits, met with people to diffuse difficult situations and managed their (very long) wishlist of changes and corrections on the plant. The more I worked in this role, the more I liked it and the more my PM/ project sponsor assigned me to these tasks.
Was this hard engineering? No – really it wasn’t. The hard-engineering decisions were still taken between corresponding engineers on their team and ours. Yes, I missed the hard engineering of being on site and making things happen, and the pace and impact of project engineering. But there is a certain level of technical know-how required to interact with a technical Client’s team, that made it necessary for an engineer to do this. And somewhere along the way, I guess someone realised that I could be good at this.
Having a really large Client’s team (up-side of 20 individuals) it really was difficult to manage every request and expectation. I flew to the middle of the Northern Cape, as well as to Cape Town several times to meet with individuals and groups to ensure they were being personally attended to. I really put my heart into this as I could see its affect on the project and our image as a company. I find that so often, we forget the impact of the image we portray at a grass-roots level after a project is sold.
I left the Company before the project’s completion and before I did, I had many calls from members on our Client’s team to say goodbye and good luck. Although, truthfully, I probably did less for the project’s execution than any other engineer on the team, it was unbelievable to hear the feedback I received. Contemplating on it, I realise that this is something that maybe is missing from engineering consultancies. Balancing Client relationships with project progress is a PM function, but with the masses of time a PM has to spend on project execution, he/ she can’t also afford to take care of the requests and concerns of an entire Client team as well.
Female engineers are ideal for this role that requires charisma as well a technical prowess, professionalism and charm. Being – for the most part – better communicators than men, less intimidating and more accommodating, women at the Client-interface can reshape the image of a company. Women with good interpersonal skills can be trained to work at the apex of technical, project and social interactions – perfect for Client relationship-building in a technically-minded industry. Their unique set of skills tied to their femininity can be a great advantage to their careers and this should be leveraged by project managers and sponsors.
Its been a while since I posted – readers will realise that my lull in posts has coincided with my move to Johannesburg and my starting a new job in engineering consulting.
The past 2.5 months at my new company have been a whirlwind of excitement. Being thrown into two projects in the midst of implementation was more challenging than I could have anticipated. Also, learning a new company’s way of operating and getting a feel of how to find and leverage the resources available always takes some time.
My new company is vastly different to my previous one: I now live in the city and take 5 minutes to get to work, as opposed to driving 65kms everyday to my project site. I work in a large, open-planned office with white walls dotted with brightly coloured panels. Colleagues bounce around on pilates balls at their desks and work flexible hours to beat the traffic. I have swapped out my pink hard-hat for a white one (still gonna try get my pink one back though) and have exchanged safety boots for elegant pencil skirts and heels.
The most interesting and different thing about my job however is that now I have a Client. It wasn’t 3 months ago when I was the Client! Sitting on the other side of the table is quite interesting. For one, I cant be the absolute brat that I am anymore. I really enjoyed being the end-user. Working for a huge multinational gives you the feeling that anything can be possible. Everything is just large – especially in capital projects and the suppliers and consultants that work for you know the value of a customer like that. As a consultant executing two projects for a large multinational, I realise how very difficult it sometimes can be on the receiving-end.
Saying that, it has allowed me to develop in areas I never had a chance to before. I am now very diplomatic about what I say and careful about how I say it. I am conscious about what I do and the quality and detail of my work is ever-more important. I cant say that I don’t enjoy it, in fact, I love it! Its a professional environment in which I am thriving.
The other side of the coin is that now I work even more closely with people than before. Coordinating activities between draughtsmen, engineers and project administrators is all about communication and relationship building. It requires a lot of energy though, and sometimes there is a bit of conflict – but I have come to enjoy a bit of conflict once in a while ;). Just to shake things up, you know?
All in all, everyone is different and are suited to different environments. Production and mining was great experience and something that has launched my career. I would definitely recommend that all engineers get this exposure a an early stage in their careers. However, consulting is very exciting and you get broader exposure to the industry as a whole. Some people start off in consulting and never leave. It may be stressful, but if you are a very driven individual who values professionalism and detail, I would recommend it to you!