Celebrating Women in Construction

We recently spoke to Oi Ki Cheung, a project engineer passionate about encouraging more young people into the sector.

Oi Ki Cheung is just where she wants to be – a Network Rail project engineer on Crossrail, the £16 billion, 73 mile rail project linking Maidenhead in Berkshire with Shenfield, Essex when it opens in 2019, via six Central London Underground stations on the way. It’s Europe’s largest infrastructure project, and Oi Ki is a civil engineer on the new dive under (or underpass) at Acton Freight Yard, an important section of Crossrail West.

As a young girl growing up in Hong Kong, the 33-year-old Loughborough University civil engineering graduate was thrilled by the Island’s extraordinary network of bridges and tunnels. “If you think Spaghetti Junction is complicated, you should see what Hong Kong is like,” she says admiringly.

Out in Hong Kong, she grasped early in life how civil engineering underpinned all human society, and it made her career choice very easy when she came to Leicester over 20 years ago to start secondary school. Gifted at maths and sciences, she just had to be a civil engineer. And it’s clear that the bigger the engineering challenge, the more Oi Ki wants to be at the heart of the solution.

“I do have a genuine passion for civil engineering; I’ve always been hooked on bridges. And I think I’m like most civil engineers – we really want to help improve society. People’s quality of life rests on what we do as a profession.”

Oi Ki is keen to share her passion with young people who know little of the profession. “Since I began working, I’ve always put my hand up whenever people have been needed to go into schools and colleges to talk about civil engineering and the industry.”

It was that deep, genuine enthusiasm that shone through recently when Construction Youth Trust asked Network Rail if they could show 25 Budding Brunels students round the Crossrail project.  Oi Ki volunteered to organize a day’s on-site activities for the youngsters and showed them what a major civils project was all about. “I planned the day to be as informative and exciting as possible. It made me very proud when one of them said, ‘On behalf of all of us, we’ve really enjoyed it. Thank you’.”

Oi Ki’s been with Network Rail, working on Crossrail, for the past two and a quarter years. After graduating, she had spent a year with Babcock Rail before finding her true vocation with Mott MacDonald, the British multi-disciplinary consultancy. There she had five very happy and stimulating years working mainly on bridge design and assessments.

“The training and help they gave me was fantastic. There were lots of passionate and experienced engineers there who helped my development tremendously.”

Like most women in construction, she’s encountered some unthinking chauvinistic attitudes along the way. “It’s definitely a male dominated world, and sometimes you do get some odd comments from men.

“You just have to stand up for yourself. I explain why it’s not ok to make comments like that. You can only educate them. And most people, when you explain, understand and respect you.

“I think things are changing, as more women come into construction. And there are definitely more young women around these days. I’ve met more female graduates than when I started.”

For things to really change in the industry, Oi Ki believes it’s crucial to influence girls far earlier in their education than currently happens.

“I’ve visited lots of schools because I’m very keen to be a kind of role model for young women and get more of them to join construction. But if we want to attract more women, we have to start earlier than 6th form: they already know then what they might do. Very rarely did I meet a girl who wanted to do engineering at that stage. It was often too late – they were set on things like psychology or child care careers.”

In Asia, she explains, so many more females do engineering. “It’s not something seen as an alternative career.”

The key is being into maths and sciences – the fundamental disciplines of civil engineering – at which Asian youngsters lead the world. “We don’t teach young kids to get into these subjects in the UK. It’s not interactive enough. People get put off too early. They say ‘My maths is not good enough’ and give up. If we’re going to get better at these subjects, it’s all down to the way we teach.”

Oi Ki’s advice to anyone thinking about a civil engineering career? “Just be confident. If you’re at all interested, look into it. It’s an intellectual challenge – there’s a lot of thinking involved. It’s really not about getting dirty on site!”

Favourite structures:

Tsing Ma Bridge (9th longest suspension bridge in the world), a key infrastructure component leading out to the airport, built in the early 1990s, and designed by Mott MacDonald.

The Boston Underground system – a massively complex system built and added to over many years to ease chronic congestion in the Massachusetts capital.