Bespoke Careers – Isobel Lloyd

“Teaching has allowed me to enthuse about the things that I love about Engineering”: Isobel Lloyd

“It was a shock to join the university (from industry): I was allowed unexpected freedom to plan units, to include field trips and whatever material I wanted to create.”

Dr. Isobel Lloyd is a Senior Lecturer in Civil Engineering, and enjoyed a long career in senior roles in industry before choosing to move into academia. She tells us about how the move has been for her, how she has seen things change over the years, and what she hopes for next.

Why do you like your job in Civil Engineering?

Civil engineering is a fantastic career that has enabled me to change lives for the better. I have worked on the following projects; improving highway safety which led to a reduction in fatalities year on year, building schools for the future which led to less sickness in children and improved SATS scores, designing uplifting spaces for people to live and work, where improvement can not be quantified but there is sense of improved mental and physical health. It is constantly changing work where no two days are the same and every project is different and bring with them new challenges that require analytical and creative problem solving to overcome. In my role as a lecturer I find the students a joy to teach and I enjoy preparing them for their careers in civil engineering, knowing that they too can go on to improve lives.

Tell us about yourself and what you have observed in Engineering since you first became a Civil Engineer.

I am now sixty years old and when I started out female Engineers were very unusual in the UK, and almost viewed with suspicion.

When I was seventeen and keen to pursue a career in Civil Engineering, the careers advisor said to me ‘oh no dear that’s a dirty job, why don’t you think again’. So, I changed my plans and enrolled to do a Geology degree instead. There I was inspired by a Civil Engineering lecturer who taught us Soil Mechanics, who encouraged me to take a Masters in Foundation Engineering.

I was very excited to be accepted as the only female on the course at Birmingham. At the first meeting with the lecturers, one of them told me ‘I like my women to be decorative’, and made it clear that he did not feel women belonged doing an Engineering Masters. Inevitably, I never really felt comfortable asking questions in his lectures and didn’t do particularly well studying his units. Despite this or perhaps driven on by his attitude, I came top of the year and won the Year Prize.

Prejudice was endemic during this time. Even the female administrator said to me ‘Isobel you’re letting the side down’ and singled me out from the male students because I was wearing un-ironed trousers. At a Christmas party a Senior Engineer queried my masters as he didn’t realise there were ‘master’s courses in make-up’ and another told me I was taking ‘a man’s job’. The librarian in the Queen’s building library felt the need to check if I was lost. Sadly, these prejudices were common-place and engrained in society at the time.

After studying for my Master’s, I worked on site for a year. I expected more sexism, but I was entirely wrong. So long as I worked as hard as the men, I was respected for the job I did. An opportunity then arose to study for a PhD in Civil Engineering at Bristol University. When I enrolled there were two other female post- graduates, which was wonderful as I was no longer a singularity, but still an oddity. Up to this point I had not met any other female Engineers. After my PhD I progressed to Head of the Geotechnical Team at Buro Happold, by default because there were no other Geotechnical Engineers. Later on, I was promoted to Associate (partner), becoming the youngest Associate in the company. Sadly in the office, particularly with some of the older engineers, there was an assumption that women couldn’t do their job. Men were given a pay rise when their wife was pregnant, as they were going to need the extra money. At the same time I was told ’you can not have it all’, by which they meant have a career and family, so I set about proving them wrong. I have 3 daughters, but none of them are Engineers. Professionally it was always a case of proving yourself to be at least as good as the men. Throughout my career I have observed prejudice towards women change from being overt and rude to something subtler and often well-intentioned, but potentially just as damaging. For instance, at a management training course we were discussing a hypothetical situation where there was an aggressive contractor on site, my male colleagues agreed that they would send a man to deal with this situation and were aghast when I explained this was prejudiced and without exposure to those situations their female employees would never learn how to handle them and this would then hold them back. Instead they saw it as their role to protect their female employees and would not give them the more challenging jobs. Another example of this subtle prejudice was the female organiser of a conference on equality being thanked with a bunch of flowers and a kiss on the cheek. Is that thoughtful or offensive? My view is that if you wouldn’t do it to a man, then don’t do it to a woman.

Tell us what it means to be a sixty-year-old female working in academia.

At the age of 48 I had achieved my career goal of being a Technical Director in a large international Engineering Consultancy, directing and managing a team of 250 staff. At 51 I had no preparation for how severely I would be affected by the perimenopause with lack of sleep, panic attacks, palpitations and hot flushes. For me it was not possible to continue in a high-pressure job in a predominantly male environment, whilst blushing, sweating and breaking down in tears.

I was extremely fortunate to be offered a part time teaching position in the University. This would not seem a logical move in terms of pay or status, but if you sweat and blush in front of students they assume that you are anxious about lecturing, not that you are lying and untrustworthy. For me teaching has allowed me to enthuse about the things that I love about engineering; the problem solving, variety of everyday, improving lives and to teach units which are all based on real project experiences and problem-based learning. I have enjoyed an incredible freedom to set my own path and goals, which would never have been possible in industry.

When I started work I hoped that by the time I retired that we would have achieved sexual equality. Sadly, I now doubt that we will; in numbers of women coming into Engineering, in seniority or pay.

How have you been supported in your role and how do you like to support others?

It was a shock to join the University as I was used to being always available to my staff and being on call 2 nights a fortnight. Suddenly I could plan my days to suit myself as long as I was ready for lectures and classes. If I was checked up on, it was subtle as I never noticed. I was allowed unexpected freedom to plan units, to include field trips and whatever material I wanted to create. I no longer had to personally deliver a profit, whilst I am sure that others were worrying about this.

I attended the Create scheme, which was very helpful to me, but also there are so many free lectures on such wide-ranging subjects, available to all, just for the effort of turning up. I spent years in industry arguing for more funding for personal development for staff and being limited to 4 days/year. I feel like I have been given a second chance to widen my knowledge and encourage others to take advantage of these opportunities.

I am a chartered geologist. I have been a scrutineer for 25 years and have mentored many staff to get chartered. This should be proof of their development as a professional engineering geologist. To help people through this process feels like the final step to launch them into their professional careers.

I am ardent believer in a meritocracy – women have to be as good as men to progress. This does not mean that we have to be same, but I think that positive discrimination of minority groups will ultimately backfire if they are chosen over better candidates and then are unable to do the job. For this reason, I do not support groups for minorities in the workplace because they are exclusive and draw attention to differences. Whilst I completely understand why these groups exist, if we are striving for equality, inclusivity and for everyone to be treated the same then I do not think these sorts of groups are helpful and that the effort should be aimed at removing prejudice.

For people to change there needs to be an intrinsic motivation, and whilst people do not see a benefit in acting differently then I don’t think things will change. There is plenty of evidence that a more diverse workplace is more effective at problem solving and more profitable. When this is truly accepted, perhaps we will achieve equality and inclusivity.

I will always individually support any women to cope with prejudice, feel valued, worthy and to promote themselves.

How do you feel prejudice is being combatted in Higher Education from a teaching perspective?

There is still a long way to go.

I did the unconscious bias Implicit Association Test (IAT) and was shocked that despite my life experiences, I am prejudiced. Knowing this has made me step back, take a moment and adapt my responses to counteract it. My guide is to treat everyone with equal respect. Until we are all oblivious to the sex, colour and disability, there is a risk that we will continue to make biased decisions, so we need to recognise the unconscious bias that exists within us all and try to respond to it.

I am very saddened by the lack of respect that our students show to younger women, compared to men at the same point in their careers. Taking the students on a fieldtrip, they would not get on the coach when a female PGT asked, but moved immediately when a male PGT asked. There have been studies carried out explaining how women’s voices do not carry the same authority as a man’s and they don’t always get listened to. It’s disheartening to see students listening more to a male voice or male instruction because it holds more authority. We must support the young female staff, not by taking over, but by reinforcing to the students that all staff should be given equal respect and this example needs to be set throughout the organisation.

There are things that women can do too. Early in my career I was mistaken for a secretary and was asked to make coffee. As the only female Engineer it was a forgivable mistake. I started dressing differently to differentiate myself, which was difficult as women then were expected to wear a skirt in the office. I developed a thick skin, otherwise I would have been constantly offended. At the University I went on speech training courses, to engage interest but also to deepen my voice so that I don’t do what is perceived as an unpleasant female ‘screech’. We can help ourselves, if we believe that we are as good as the men, then behave like it and people will start believing it too.

We have to acknowledge that prejudice still happens. Life is too short to confront every example and it would be overwhelming and exhausting to try to do so. For the woman who does challenge it, she gets labelled as a trouble maker, not a team player and certainly not worthy of promotion. To me it seems an impossible dilemma and my solution has been to work hard to be the best that I can, and hope that is recognised.