Abena Asamoa-Bonsu is a senior project engineer for Transport for London (TfL). She is a Chartered Civil Engineer with experience on major construction projects and project engineering experience including management of bids for design and construction. Abena is an ambassador for women in STEM and supports projects such as Education and Employer’s Inspiring Women campaign and STEMNET. She used to be schools’ ambassador for Crossrail and is now a TfL Engineering Ambassador.
“…It’s so important to engage men in the conversation, rather than exclude them…”
Coming to the UK from Ghana and choosing engineering: No regrets
I am originally from Ghana where I completed a civil engineering undergraduate degree. I spent my year of national service working for the Government as a Project Implementation Officer for infrastructure projects as part of the 50th Independence Day celebrations.
During my undergraduate study, I travelled to the northern part of Ghana and worked with a metropolitan authority (the equivalent of a local council in the UK) reviewing and recommending waste management techniques. I also worked with a civil design / engineering consultancy firm during the holidays. I had a particular interest in the environment and subsequently came to the UK to pursue an environmental engineering master’s degree at Imperial College, London.
Back in high school, I excelled at and particularly enjoyed physics, maths and chemistry but didn’t really think of being an engineer. I actually started off with agricultural economics and then switched over when my father suggested a career in engineering. I have not regretted this choice, as I have always wanted to break barriers and stereotypes whilst taking up challenges.
A day in the life of a civil engineer
As the senior project engineer for the Neasden Depot upgrade project and legacy depot works, I am responsible for leading a multidisciplinary team of engineers to provide designs to support the overhaul facilities at the depot in order to maintain the new fleet of trains.
No day is ever the same – a cliché, but also the truth. Some days I will be reviewing and contributing to designs produced by other engineers and other days, I will be desk-based, researching and writing strategies ensuring the project and London Underground as a whole obtains the best value from the project.
Currently, it is very busy in the office, as I am taking the lead role in reviewing the technical sections of proposals as part of the tendering process for a design consultant – it’s important for a detailed review to be undertaken. This also involves a lot of analysis and regularly liaising with my project engineering team as well as the commercial, project management and senior management teams in the decision-making process.
During the construction stage of the project, I will be responsible for managing construction work, ensuring what is being built is what has been designed. This type of responsibility will be similar to my previous job with attendance at site. The role will first include providing technical information to support the procurement of a contractor. I am also engaged in resource management, defining engineering resources for the project, defining job roles and descriptions, carrying out interviews and performance and career development / management. I am currently supported by four knowledgeable and enthusiastic project engineers and together we make a great team.
I am also actively involved in mentoring TfL’s Graduate Civil Engineers, who are enrolled on the Institution of Civil Engineers training scheme, towards successful professional membership and I take a keen interest in the personal development of the apprentices on our project.
In engineering, science and maths are key
In the project engineering (or engineering) field, it is absolutely necessary that you are skilled in a specific discipline, but you also need some general knowledge of the other disciplines that you will interact with. This means that science and maths are key e.g. I will be using maths to check concrete volumes, cost of works done or even to ensure that a building’s support is adequate and safe during construction.
My role involves using science (which is a rather broad term that encompasses physics, chemistry, electrics, mechanics and more). For example, I need an understanding of science and material properties to select materials / equipment and also to ensure that any infrastructure project is safe and built to the right standards while being cost-effective.
To be a well-rounded engineer, you should be willing to read a lot, take opportunities as they come, challenge solutions, learn from other engineers and ask questions.
Why I love being a STEM ambassador
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As a STEM Ambassador through STEMNet and TfL’s Engineering Ambassador team, I am very interested in breaking the stereotype that STEM subjects are a male niche. My past roles with Bechtel Limited and Crossrail were important in developing my career and I was supported by both male and female engineers. Summer placements for students are very important in reducing the construction skills gap.
As a STEM Ambassador, I attend school events, such as career days, CV workshops and GCSE preparation events, to educate and encourage students to study STEM subjects. I have also participated in past Big Bang Fair and Lego Robotics events as volunteer.
International Women in Engineering Day and the importance of #MenAsAllies
It is brilliant news that this is now an international event. The theme for this year is #MenAsAllies, which is fantastic news. It’s so important to engage men in the conversation, rather than exclude them. There is a lot of enthusiasm from male colleagues and mentors, who have supported me when I was training to become an engineer, and want to proactively break the stereotype that engineering is a career path only for men.
Being an international day is significant because it creates awareness of the international nature of the engineering profession. Other European countries are recognised for having more female engineers than the UK and hopefully making the day International will introduce a healthy bit of competition. With so many infrastructure projects coming up in the UK and worldwide, we need creative minds to think and develop new machines and systems to sustain economies and support growth.
Give girls and women a chance at STEM subjects and a in (very) few years time on every engineering project, office and organisation you’ll find the ubiquitous female engineer or scientist.
No longer just a job for the boys
I think it depends on the job and the organisation if you consider whether civil engineering is becoming any less male dominated – when I undertook my first site job in the UK, I was the only female engineer, but as a graduate, the ratio was more proportional. My first job in the UK was with a major multi-national company, providing environmental support to overseas projects. It was interesting to be on the other end of the phone and have experienced male engineers learn from my expertise and experiences as well as the other way round.
Women’s Engineering Society has useful statistics on the number of women in engineering. A 2015 report by the National Centre for Universities and Business stated the proportion of young women studying engineering and physics has remained virtually static since 2012. A recent survey showed civil engineering has more females compared to other engineering fields.
I believe that this is because civil engineering is our built environment – roads, buildings, bridges, water supply, sanitation and railways – hence it is easier to see what civil engineers do. I think it’s important that some of the other engineering disciplines work to break stereotypes and encourage even more of their female engineers to get out and inspire younger people into the profession.
During my time in the UK, I have increasingly seen more female students attend work placements and more female graduate engineers attend recruitment centres. Subsequently, I have seen more women join engineering/construction firms too. It is difficult to say exactly, but I think that there are positive indications that more women are entering the industry.
Choosing your engineering pathway
There are lots of engineering disciplines out there – it’s so broad, there is something for everyone. You could work in a design house, designing mega structures, the next fuel-efficient car or the latest technologically-advanced medical instrument. You could also be using your knowledge to plan and schedule works, managing costs on a project, or even working with organisations like the World Food Programme to provide assets for famine hit nations.
I would suggest girls and women (in their mid or later careers) get as much work experience as they can and should be ready to speak to people who have knowledge about it. Get yourself a mentor – they are vital to a great career.
Speaking about routes into engineering, I think the apprenticeship route is a great opportunity for those who don’t feel that university is for them. Apprenticeships, like those available at TfL, offer you the chance to earn while you learn, gaining great hands-on experience.
UK, Ghana and the world..!
As I previously stated, it is very busy at the moment because the project is currently at the tender stage. Hopefully, a successful contract will be awarded soon and we will get straight into the design stage.
On a more personal level, I am hoping to help my female engineers develop their capabilities, so that we can all increasingly take on more responsibilities. I will continue to act as a STEM ambassador and also hoping to see all of my mentees acquire chartership from the Institution of Civil Engineers on their first go. UK, Ghana and the world have lots of exciting projects coming up – who knows, you may just see me becoming a chief engineer of a major infrastructure project?