International Women in Engineering Day Blog - Kate O'Connell, Operations Manager

23 June, 2021

International Women in Engineering Day, is a great opportunity for us celebrate the many women who’ve forged fantastic careers as engineers, look back at the improvements our industry has made and really focus on what we need to do to change to make engineering a place women look to as a first choice for their careers.

I consider myself quite fortunate, in that, growing up, I went to an all-girls school which put a real focus on science topics, and I had fantastic teachers who encouraged me to hone my skills in those areas. When I reached sixth-form I had the opportunity to attend a Women in Engineering Week at Sheffield Hallam University. trying different aspects of engineering in a university setting with around 50 other like-minded young girls. It gave me the chance to see what I enjoyed, outside of the pressures of what was viewed as “normal” career progression and made me aware of what engineering was (while enjoying a week in the life of a student. Before that point, it’s not something that I knew much about.

It was this experience that inspired me to pursue my career and I went on to complete my degree at The University of Leeds in Civil Engineering and Architecture. After my degree I was keen to get stuck into more practical learning as a site engineer. A few years later I joined BAM Nuttall where I’ve spent most of my career working in different sectors and in a variety of different roles.

Working in the Rail Division, I progressed my engineering career from site engineer to project management. I found the meticulous planning and execution of many successful railway possessions were actually extremely satisfying and rewarding. That was definitely made possible through great teamwork and leadership, which was a great lesson to experience early in my career.

After delivering a number of projects I had an itch to be more involved in the earlier developments of projects, I was interested to see how my knowledge in delivering projects could be adapted to support our clients, consider how they can achieve their needs while considering the risks and methods of construction.

At that time, I remember my colleagues were quite surprised at my request to apply for a role in Business Development but also very supportive. After a few years delivering Business Development for Rail, the business decided to create a new Highways Division, I was keen to be involved in developing this new sector which was a interesting experience being part of a new team with a new key client.

A similar thing happened a few years later when we set out to explore the international markets. Working overseas was something that has always interested me and it seemed like a great opportunity to further develop my business experiences. Based in Tanzania where BAM were delivering a new terminal building for the Julius Nyerere International Airport, my role was to explore the African market and identify any suitable clients and projects for BAM. This involved meeting international and African government clients and working with the UK’s Department for International Trade to identify suitable opportunities where the UK government and businesses can support infrastructure developments in African countries.

Working in East Africa was a great experience but also a steep learning curve. I was a visitor in another country, I stood out and I had to quickly learn to adapt to different cultures and appreciate their values and way of life. One of my fond memories of working in Tanzania was hosting an event for all the women who worked for BAM on our airport project to celebrate International Women’s Day. It was enjoyed so much by everyone because it wasn’t the norm to celebrate women in that way – and they felt recognised and proud of their achievements.


Encouragement and good role-models are both essential to the progression of women. I remember being asked to lead my first railway bridge reconstruction project. It was such a huge amount of responsibility at the time, as a section engineer, but I had a great support network and was trusted to be able to do it. I think that taught me to take opportunities when they are offered and enjoy them. Having supportive people around me also allowed me to feel comfortable in asking questions and exploring different parts of the business while developing my career.

I have had an enjoyable career in engineering and I look forward to what the future may hold for all women working in construction, although it’s disappointing to see only small improvements in diversity across the industry.

We’re making great in-roads in female recruitment at the early stages, something which is probably down to the uptake of STEM outreach activities, like the one which kick-started my career, but we need to do much more and take positive action.

There’s never been a question of whether women can be engineers, it’s always been more about whether the engineering industry is one in which women can thrive. The answer is, yes they can, we just need to do what engineers do best and think outside of the box to continue to evolve and become the inclusive work environment which will benefit everyone.

My advice for women entering engineering would be, don’t be afraid to ask questions! If something interests you then I’d encourage you to pursue it and see where it takes you. Don’t worry about what’s “normal” or what path you “should” be taking, because it’s your career path, so do what drives you to succeed.

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