Posted on May 06 2015
This week's Wednesday Woman is the inspiring and amazing Roma Agrawal. An award-winning Structural Engineer who helped build The Shard, one of London's most iconic landmarks at aged 23. She's also writing a book called Building Storeys for Bloomsbury. Read her awesome story here:
Bardega: Roma, what is your background and what first got you into engineering?
Roma Agrawal: I grew up in Mumbai, India and moved to London when I was 16 to study for my ‘A’ Levels.My parents have always had a very strong focus on our education. We always studied hard and did well at school - my mum made sure of that!
My father also encouraged my sister and I to play with LEGO and Meccano which I’m sure played a part in giving me the practical and visual skills which help me in engineering today. Actually, I have always been interested in design and architecture and did an A-level in Design & Technology. I briefly considered a career as a Physicist but wanted to find a job which was a little more practical, and enabled me to create something physical and permanent.
I worked with Mechanical Engineers at Oxford University one summer and found their work really interesting and inspirational - it was then that I decided I wanted to do Engineering and some research showed that Structural Engineering would be a good fit as it draws on both Physics, as well as the built environment. I joined WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff as a Graduate Structural Engineer in 2005 and have worked on some fantastic projects since including The Shard at London Bridge.
Bardega: The STEM field is renowned for being male dominated - how have you found it and what do you think needs to happen to encourage more women into the industry?
Agrawal: Yes, Science and Engineering are very male-dominated professions but that is starting to change for the better now. I was always encouraged to pursue my enjoyment of maths and science by my parents and teachers and I think it’s really very important that people in the position of influence do this for both boys and girls.
I haven’t faced any prejudices, but I know that many girls receive messages throughout their lives about science and maths not being for girls. Starting from science toys which are marketed only to boys, and other stereotypes around engineering careers not being for girls. I’m just grateful that my parents and teachers were so supportive and made sure I had the confidence I needed to pursue my career.
In general, women are very positive about science and engineering. It's very important that we make girls, and boys as well, aware of the careers you can have with science backgrounds. Often I meet children that are not aware that maths and physics can lead to designing skyscrapers, for example, but after I show them this, the students become very enthusiastic about it.
We also need to let girls and boys play with whatever toys they want, stop using phrases like ‘tomboy’ and ‘throw like a girl’ and let children explore the world without restriction
Bardega: We agree. What or who inspires you?
Agrawal: I am inspired by people that go against the grain and achieve amazing things in their lives. An example is Emily Roebling, she was the daughter-in-law of the engineer that designed the Brooklyn Bridge. After tragedy struck and he died, and her husband was bedridden due to illness, she took up the mantle and got the bridge built. A woman running a major engineering project was unheard of in the 1800s but she did it.
Bardega: What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome in your career?
Agrawal: Confidence in my own abilities has been a challenge. I often wondered why I was admitted to Oxford to study Physics because I didn’t feel smart enough. I wasn’t sure that I could make the switch to engineering and get a job, and even today when I am given a new project, I have moments of doubt. I am aware of this now, and with encouragement from others and better self-belief, I can deal with it and ensure I don’t let it stop me from moving forward in my career.
Also transitioning from a technical role to an active presenter and communicator with the media was definitely a challenge. Speaking to the media about my personal life and career doesn’t come naturally to me but ,once I started, I realised I really enjoyed it and hope I can make a difference by inspiring young people to consider engineering as a career.
Bardega: What advice would you give to other girls wanting to enter STEM fields?
Agrawal: Be confident in yourself and your abilities. Persevere with something you’re passionate about. Don’t be put off by stereotypes. Have a mentor (or two) but most of all, just enjoy it!