Fiona Connor is a main grade geotechnical engineer at ESG (Environmental Scientifics Group). She is co-chair of the InterEngineering Midlands Region. InterEngineering is a free and inclusive organisation for everyone who believes that LGBT diversity and inclusion within engineering is important.
“…I was not aware of another LGBT+ identifying engineer before getting in contact with InterEngineering, and so by attending their events I now know I’m not the only one!..”
Fiona, please can you tell us about your career to date and what got you interested in engineering?
I have always had a passion for being outdoors, the environment, mathematics and the sciences, and an opportunity to combine all these interests is unique in the field of geotechnical and geo-environmental engineering.
After graduating I joined ESG over two and a half years ago, as an assistant grade engineer, working my way up from the entry level position to being capable of managing medium sized ground investigation projects and more recently playing key management role in larger infrastructure projects run by ESG, which has been a challenging but thrilling progression in my career and I’m loving every moment.
I was nominated for an industry award at the Next Generation Ground Engineering Awards, which involved writing a presentation on my career so far and speaking to a panel of judges in London. Although this was far from my comfort zone, it provided me with the opportunity to socialise with industry peers and learn about what they were doing in terms of career progression and working towards chartership etc. Since then I have been invited on several very informative conferences and events, so it’s nice to feel appreciated not only by your company, but also but the industry as a whole as an early career professional.
What does your role at Environmental Scientifics Group involve on a day to day basis?
There isn’t really a typical day in my job role, but it’s safe to say it will start with a journey in my transit van! The job combines technical knowledge, geological rock logging and physical outdoor site work.
ESG is a company which provides integrated investigation, testing and advisory services in geotechnics and the earth and environmental sciences. Projects vary in size from the ground investigation for foundations of individual buildings to multi-million pound land reclamation, highway schemes, power, rail, utility and industrial developments, both on land and over water.
As a site agent I can be involved in the set up and running of projects out on site, coordinating drillers and drill rigs, running multiple operations alongside each other, and ensuring everyone has been briefed and is working safely. I work predominantly on construction sites and outdoors. I also can be required to log and describe the rock and soil samples recovered from various drilling methods, as well as managing databases of the laboratory results and logs, as well as converting them into AGS (a format that can be read by multi-disciplinary industry sectors).
How did you get involved with InterEngineering and why is its work so important?
I discovered InterEngineering via the website, after having researched diversity and representation of the LGBT+ community within the field of engineering, and having felt there was a lot that needed to be done to promote this. I was not aware of another LGBT+ identifying engineer before getting in contact with InterEngineering, and so by attending their events I now know I’m not the only one!
I’m therefore now keen to get involved in spreading the word, to help create a friendly, inclusive and open working environment for all, especially in the Midlands.
I think it’s important to be to be involved in InterEngineering because the engineering sector, unlike others such as law or finance tends at present to be lacking in open diversity and D&I network groups within companies.
People can feel isolated and lacking in support within their own companies, so InterEngineering provides them the support network, introduces to new friends, and even colleagues. It also offers companies, especially small and medium enterprises support and advice in developing their own LGBT+ networks.
What are the challenges of being in more than one minority group, for example an LGBT woman in a male dominated profession?
I wouldn’t say it was without its challenges but don’t see it as the most challenging to be from more than one minority group, for example as an LGBT woman in a male dominated profession. As a woman in a male dominated profession, unlike in the past, today on site, aside from the occasional misguided comment, you are typically treated as an equal, and with perhaps even increased respect and courtesy.
I actually see it, in the engineering sector, to be a much more hostile or challenging environment to be an LGBT male. The macho male dominated work environment still exists for them in many companies, especially out on site, and the prejudices that come along with this.
This is precisely why I’m openly out on site, always sporting my rainbow laces and lanyard, as I believe more should be done in these predominantly non-gender diverse environments to promote not only diversity in the form of toolbox talks, but in social conversations in the canteen, creating open discussion and conversation about people’s backgrounds etc. The less of a minority that we become, and the more it becomes typical, the less resistance we will face in encouraging and promoting an open work environment. This means the less tolerance everyone will have for any discrimination that may occur.
What are the opportunities for the engineering profession to do things better in relation to diversity and inclusion?
I’d like to see more larger companies taking on board diversity issues and actively promoting this not only within their own workforce, but also down the supply chain as this is the only way we will truly see a greater impact.
There is a need for greater diversity within engineering, not just in relation to gender, also in terms of ethnicity, disabilities and sexuality. There is a need for openness, senior and early career role models and support networks – encouraging everyone to feel able to bring their whole selves to work.
Recently I have attended the careers fair at Student Pride in London, not only to promote InterEngineering, but to answer any questions students might have about entering a career in engineering. I’ve met some amazing and inspiring people in the short time I’ve been involved, and can’t wait to take this further and expand our Midlands Region, after a very successful launch event back at the beginning of June.
What is your advice for women and girls who are interested in careers in engineering?
Although earlier I said being a woman in the engineering sector in today’s work environment was a healthy and supportive place to be, what is sad and what does need to improve is there are not enough of us. Commonly I’m the only woman on site, and even more commonly the only women working for a contractor, as opposed to the larger corporations, though at ESG we do have fairly good gender diversity.
What we need is to encourage more young women into the sector as a whole. I feel that it is a key message to other young women considering a career in engineering, that if you work hard and are passionate about your job and your career, it is a welcoming and equal environment.
That is why I think it’s really important promote STEM (science / technology / engineering / maths) careers to young people, especially young women, as they might not have had these opportunities or career options presented to them, as I did, and be unaware of how engaging and rewarding it is.
Although my career path, to date, was perhaps not the most conventional – not studying a directly geotechnical related degree – it proves further how open and accessible the industry is. Especially with engineering industries experiencing talent shortages, employers are being forced to think outside the traditional spec of ‘engineer’, with a greater emphasis on transferable skills.
My advice would be, to anyone wanting a career in engineering, explore all options, keep an open mind and take advantage of all opportunities and experiences, no matter how daunting. Networking is also key – meet as many career professionals, fellow young engineers and people involved in your field as you can – as well as attending industry events and lectures.