Quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt inspire me, particularly “Life is what you make it” and “Do one thing every day that scares you”. Both were combined when I relocated with my family from peaceful Bath to developing Qatar in the spring of 2012, to lead the site-based works of the project I had just spent two years designing.
BuroHappold were responsible for the engineering design of 25 buildings over a 5 storey basement, which formed Phases 2 and 3 of the Msheireb Downtown Doha project in the centre of the Qatari capital. The project aims to regenerate much of the city centre in a sustainable way for the 21st century, and the excavation and piling were underway as I arrived.
After 11 years in the office, I had matured as a design engineer, but leading Middle East site-based work would be an exciting new challenge, and not just from the technical perspective. The construction managers were outwardly accepting but clearly, despite having female colleagues, senior women were not usual!
After an overly-polite start, their concerns began to fade as they realised ‘Dr Sarah’ was able to deal capably with contractors, technical matters and shifting site politics, with a cheerful attitude that they were rarely able to mimic.
Office meetings, with a male:female ratio of 20:1 became the accepted norm, and increasingly their concerns dwindled as I became a significant contributor to the project, politely making my opinions known without resorting to shouting or thumping the table! It wasn’t, however, as if they didn’t shout at me, and after a particularly tempestuous meeting with the client team, one senior manager sheepishly apologised as ‘he had never shouted at a woman before’. I smiled, inwardly chuckling, knowing that he had seen me as an engineer first and a woman second, and accepted his apology graciously.
Things were equally challenging whilst out on the construction site. The site staff always addressed me as ‘sir’, as the default for someone in charge! The contractor’s team, whose work we supervised understood quickly that I was as conscientious as any male consultant that they had previously encountered. I was the experienced person my colleagues referred to when contentious issues arose, and was happy to crawl into a reinforcement cage to inspect details for myself, particularly if it led to a swift resolution of a problem.
My own ‘more-international’ expatriate staff were initially as confused as the site team about having a female boss. Indeed, on the first occasion we were on site together in the evening, resolving a problem with concrete supply, they questioned whether I needed to go home to cook my husband’s dinner! I reassured them that my husband would have long-since have cooked the family dinner and that my having to work late was a normal part of the family dynamic.
Successive challenges arrived quickly throughout my three years there, but I was amply compensated by the delight of creating an iconic group of buildings and comments such as ‘Dr Sarah, we have never met any woman like you before, with your passion and excitement for engineering, but you have helped me to think differently about what my wife and daughter can achieve’. Rewards such as these make my very satisfying working life into something unique and inspirational.
BuroHappold provided me with a unique opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and develop my skills on an amazing project in Qatar, but I think that the obstacles faced by them or I in doing this would have been similar regardless of my gender. Everyone should be equally encouraged and supported to seek and explore new challenges, with the hope that the experienced gained will provide them with fresh insights and ways of tackling problems that they might never have considered if they hadn’t grasped the opportunity and ‘done something that scared them’.