What makes a winning Engineer?

Victoria Martin found her dream career as an Engineer despite being offered little guidance on the subject at school. Instead her inspiration came from her engineering technician grandfather and her love of Lego!

Victoria has packed an extraordinary amount into her short but glittering engineering career. Just turned 30, she’s played a major role in helping design Renzo Piano’s new Greek National Library; worked with Hopkins Architects on the University of East London’s library and a new science centre at Abingdon School; been elected a council member at the Institution of Structural Engineers, as well as a board member and trustee; and somehow also finds the time to serve as a visiting lecturer at Bath University, where she graduated with a first-class degree in civil and architectural engineering less than seven years ago.

Small wonder then that her latest laurel was the Engineering Award at this year’s Duke of Gloucester’s Young Achievers Scheme. Or that the judges described her as: “An outstanding, charismatic candidate who has achieved a lot in her career.” And as if that were not accolade enough, they added: “She is also prolific in getting the message about construction out there. She is very mature in terms of understanding the industry and the challenges it faces in attracting and retaining women and talent in general. She is incredibly analytical. A real champion for the industry and a real change agent.”

If British engineering can produce people like Victoria, then it must be doing something right. Being a woman in this traditionally masculine world has never held her back, she says.  “Yes, you’re aware that you’re in a minority. But I see that as an advantage. People will notice you, you stand out more in a crowd. As long as you’re confident in your ability, it can work in your favour.”

Looking around her, she sees encouraging signs that more women are following a similar path. “Things are definitely changing for the better. There’s always a lag time, but I’m convinced the prospects for women in engineering are on an upward trend.”

Employers are playing their part, says Victoria. “More and more firms are recognizing the advantages that diversity brings. Rather than having everyone thinking in the same way, they see the benefit of bringing in the different skills range that women possess.”

One of the key ways to continue the momentum is provide better careers information at schools. In a report on engineering last year, Professor John Perkins pointed to the UK trailing other European countries on gender diversity - the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in the European Union, less than one in ten engineering professionals is a woman. The reason the UK is failing to draw on the whole of the talent pool, said Perkins, is “girls’ subject choices at 16 and perceptions of engineering as a career, which is sometimes reinforced by gender stereotypes in the careers advice received by students.”

Certainly, although attending one of the best state schools in the country, Victoria was offered very little information on engineering. It was only when she was 16 that she even became dimly aware of the opportunities an engineering career presented. “Engineering was not seen as inspirational or even professional. Most parents saw it in terms of getting your hands dirty.”

Despite this, the young Victoria had developed an interest in the built environment, and loved playing with Lego. She was encouraged by her grandfather, an engineering technician who had been forced to turn down a place at Cambridge because his family’s finances were too stretched to support him following their move from India.

She thought of becoming an architect but when a friend's mother suggested engineering and gave her a New Civil Engineer publication on the industry, she changed her mind.

The first person from her family to go to university, she studied civil and architectural engineering on a five-year sandwich course at Bath, spending her placements and summer holidays at Michael Hadi Associates and working on three other part-time jobs during term time to support herself. She graduated with first class honours and was awarded the Hoare Lea Prize for sustainable design. “I’d strongly advise anyone thinking of studying engineering to do a sandwich course. You see how the knowledge is applied in the real world, and pick it up much more quickly.”

In 2007 she joined Expedition Engineering, which she describes as a very progressive and supportive employer, and where she has worked on many fascinating projects.

Her success quickly drew her to the attention of the sector’s professional bodies, and she has become deeply involved in their efforts to encourage young people into the sector. Five years ago the Royal Institution invited her to be part of a pilot scheme for maths in schools that succeeded so well it has been rolled out nationwide. And she has worked with the national, Government-funded STEMNET charity to raise the profile of science and engineering.

Her enthusiasm for engineering is palpable and unwavering. “I love creating something that’s so useful and valuable to so many people’s lives. What other jobs give you that opportunity?”