Women engineers meet water challenges
WPR recently caught up with two UK public health engineers – Kate Longley of the Arup group in Manchester and Linda Dulieu of the Cundall multidisciplinary consultancy in London – and we just had to ask ‘what are nice girls like you doing in a job like this?’
How did two young women, fresh out of university, end up working as public health engineers for two of the biggest companies in the UK?
Linda Dulieu, who works at Cundall, says the decision back then wasn’t too hard.
“You might say engineering is in my blood,” she says.
“My father, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather were all in the plumbing industry.
“My father (now retired) had his own business, and during the Second World War my grandfather worked on ships, repairing their plumbing.
“Every time the family got together, the talk would be about plumbing and what happened on site at various jobs.
“Basically, there was no escape for me.”
For Kate Longley of Arup, the beginnings were a little different.
“I was the first person on dad’s side of the family to go to university,” she says.
“They were from a farming background. Perhaps the fact that I grew up playing constantly with my train set was a clue that I was destined to become an engineer.”
Longley says initially her work experience looked like leading to a career focused on transport, which didn’t really excite her. (What happened to the influence of that train set?)
“I found I really enjoyed the water elements of the course, so I went on to complete my masters degree in water engineering.
Then I began applying for as many jobs as my qualifications would permit.
“I applied for a position as a graduate with Arup. I can’t remember what for – certainly not public health – but that’s what they offered me. At first it was all very new and frustrating and I didn’t know how to do most things. As they say, it was nothing like what they taught us in school. The first six months were horrible. I hated it, because everything I did got corrected and covered in red pen.
“But then I began to realize that there weren’t many of us, I was getting lots of projects to work on and I learned a lot. My boss Nick Howard taught me everything I knew at the time – he had to.”
Dulieu’s story takes a different tack.
“At first I was looking to enter environmental health as an officer, but I didn’t get the grades I needed.
“My father then suggested that public health engineering wasn’t a million miles away from environmental health, and suggested I contact various large plumbing companies to secure an apprenticeship.
“This I managed to achieve in the late 1970s, although it was classed as a technical apprenticeship as opposed to being site-based on the tools.”
When asked if being female in this field adds to the challenge, both women are enthusiastic in their responses. They laugh when remembering the first few times they went on site inspections.
“I had a guy yell out to me that wives weren’t permitted on site,” Dulieu says.
Longley says: “I swear that the way some men reacted, you’d think they’d never seen a woman on site before. But I would say that building sites are one of the few bastions of chivalry left in the UK.”
She says ‘real gentlemen’ have opened doors and warned her about possible dangers.
Dulieu says: “I’ve had boards put down on the mud so that I wouldn’t get my boots too dirty.”
Most specialized professions have steep learning curves for new employees, and the women say the learning curve was steeper than they had imagined, especially in the first year.
“There were a couple of times when I thought ‘what am I doing here?’,” Longley says.
“Me too,” Dulieu echoes. “And the learning never stops. There’s always something new. And just when you think you’ve got it all under control, they change the regulations.”
Longley says the learning curve is no longer as steep as it once was, but there are always new ideas and legislation to keep them on their toes. Dulieu says she did have panicky moments in the beginning.
“Things are happening more quickly now,” Dulieu says.
“Legislation moves faster and is also in line with European Standards.
“Therefore, legislation can creep in via Europe, and it has been known to catch a few out. The environment now is the most important issue, and this is the one major issue that drives projects – especially at planning stage.”
Keeping up with legislation and code changes means lots of work at the computer. The women describe a typical day as being office-bound.
“I start by answering emails and fielding phone calls from clients and architects before moving on to things I wasn’t expecting … like marking up drawings, signing them off, keeping up with the electrical and structural boys and girls, all the while making sure we’re making our deadlines,” Longley says.
“It gets pretty hectic. Add to that the client and site meetings – and a fair share of general panic caused by people wanting answers straight away on site – and you get the gist of what my typical day is. Perhaps ‘firefighting’ is a good way of putting it.
“But before I know it, my day is ending before I’ve done what I started out wanting to do,” says Longley, who starts a bit earlier than her London counterpart.
Dulieu says: “I’m past working the very long hours but there’s always someone wanting to know about a certain job or seeking advice on something that I’m not working on – which takes up plenty of time that I would rather be spending on projects I am involved in.”
Longley believes there are not enough plumbing engineers to go around. Dulieu nods her agreement, saying she’s just starting to leave on time every night, after a few years of working long hours. Longley says a long day is still the norm for her.
“Now that project management has been added to my portfolio, there’s even more work to get through,” she says.
“Good work, but challenging nonetheless, and there never seems to be enough time to complete all my daily tasks without having to work that little bit extra.”
It seems interruptions are the most predictable part of both women’s working days.
Dulieu says: “There’s never enough space left for public health services. There’s always a lack of riser space and lack of access. It’s all squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. And what’s more, the other thing we hear all the time is that mechanical engineers can always do our job – that is, until it needs sorting out on site.
“And architects never, ever listen. No wonder I never get everything finished that I start each morning.”
On a slightly calmer note, the women admit to liking their jobs, although they do have their moments. They say that seeing a project come to life is satisfying, and Longley finds the project management aspect rewarding.
“You meet so many lovely people, and I do like the new challenges new jobs throw up,” she says.
“Challenges, changes, social interaction and camaraderie with public health engineers across the company and outside make the job very worthwhile.”
Dulieu concurs, saying it’s great to see the design come off the paper and on to the site, especially if the transition has been smooth.
“It’s also nice to get involved with a new project. Putting designs down for the very first time gives me a great kick – although changing them for the umpteenth time becomes tedious.”
Longley says getting a job out on time with a good design and keeping the client happy is also very rewarding. “What more is there to life?”
What can the two women live without during working hours? “CAD!” they yell simultaneously.
Longley says: “And there’s too much work, never enough of us. We need a white flag to wave so we can take a breather.”
The women are firm believers that mentors have a big role to play in their profession.
“When I was first apprenticed, Joe Arnell of Haden Young put his job on the line,” Dulieu says.
“I was also fortunate that I had a very understanding engineer – Geoff Stevens – who must have had the patience of a saint. Some of the questions I asked make my hair curl now.”
Longley says there are several people in London and Manchester with qualities she admires and tries to emulate.
“They’re people who display calmness under pressure, a trait I am striving to attain. I don’t have any one hero or person in particular but a number of people have had a positive influence on me.”
Dulieu and Longley are members of the Society of Public Health Engineers (SoPHE).
Longley, who heads the Manchester branch of the organization, says it spreads the good news about public health engineers, and members bounce ideas and problems off each other at meetings.
“We have a lot of fun together, too. When I moved up here from London there wasn’t a network, so after a hiatus of 18 months I finally bit the bullet and made as many contacts as I could and set up a group. We now have 15–20 turning up at the meetings, which is really encouraging. No one seems intimidated to share information or problems and solutions. That’s the whole idea of getting together. It really helps when you can talk to other professionals who may have dealt with the same problems you are experiencing.”
Dulieu says the London branch of the society is great, and most members are eager to attend meetings and share their knowledge with others, or learn from them.
“Informing architects or people from other related professions – who are welcome to attend – is extremely beneficial for us. Any way we can tell others what we do and why we are important to the building process is rewarding.”
On a personal level, Dulieu is married and Longley lives on her own with her cats. Both women spend their weekends quite sedately – no daredevils here, although Dulieu loves to scuba dive when she gets the chance.
“But only in warm water. The murky cold waters of the English Channel are no longer fun for me. I’ve even done it in Australia. When I’m not diving I like arty-crafty subjects – embroidery and stained glass.”
Longley says the weekends are for relaxing. “I love getting out in the country or enjoying time at the pub and a good meal. When I was in London I sang in a choir, but now I don’t do anything too taxing.”
Who can blame the women for using weekends to recharge their batteries.
Apart from daily challenges, Longley and Dulieu have experienced hurdles on their professional journeys. Dulieu says the recession of the early 1990s was hard.
“Getting along in the industry at that time was a great leveler. It left a legacy though – I can never quite trust promises that companies make. I also had a stint on the Chep Lap Kok airport in Hong Kong in 1993–94, which put my career back on track.”
Longley says moving into project management while still having to do all the public health work is definitely challenging.
So what’s on the horizon?
“More of the same, I guess,” Longley says. “Onwards and upwards, and trying to get better at what I do.”
Dulieu says: “Working fewer hours per week – spending more time on my house, garden and hobbies and, of course, with husband Peter (and my cat). Maybe I’ll get involved with the 2012 London Olympics.”
She is passionate about ‘green issues’ and hopes to have an effect in her part of the world.
“Rather than green alternatives being classed as ‘like to have’ engineering, I would like to see them turned into ‘must have’ engineering.