Women’s journeys in Civil Engineering

Last month, we had the opportunity to speak with Balfour Beatty, a leading international infrastructure group and long term supporter of Equate Scotland and Women in STEM! We heard from some of their talented employees in Scotland including Joy Blackburn (Emerging Talent Specialist), Martyna Widenska (Graduate TW Design Engineer), and Itziar Cores (Graduate Civil Engineer). We talked about the importance of gaining professional experience, the employability skills employers are looking for, and how to overcome some of your fears when you are the only woman in the room.

Aligning your job search with your values and passion

We often get asked by women students ‘How do I find the right placement and stand out in the application process’ especially when starting a STEM career. We have seen recruitment processes evolve in the past few years and even if most job applications are competency-based, more and more organisations want to make sure that your values, strengths, and passions align with theirs and that you would be a good fit for the company.

That is why Equate Meetups provide a unique opportunity – not only to connect employers with women in STEM – but to also get a sense of the company’s culture and speak directly with the employer to get a better insight to what it is like to work there. Thinking about what inspires you before applying for a student placement (or job) can save you time and make sure you clearly express what matters to you. It also has the benefit of helping the employer assess if you would fit well within the organisation. This is especially important if you are at the beginning of your career and have not had a lot of work experience yet. There are companies out there that make this cultural fit an important point of consideration in their recruitment process and finding who they are can ensure you find the right match for your next career move.

When talking about what our guest speakers like most about their organisation, the idea of belonging and being part of the company’s vision came up on several occasions. We talked about the use of the royal “we” within the organisation and the pride employees take on the work done by everyone in the company – whether you were directly or indirectly involved in them. “It feels good when you are passing by something and you can say I was a part of it, I helped to build this. And it is very much part of Balfour’s culture” commented Martyna. And Itziar added: “making the world a better place is important to me. COP 26 is coming, and sustainability is more and more a focus in our sector. Being a part of that in any way is exciting!”.

So, when writing your job application for a summer placement or graduate programme, don’t forget to include why you are interested in the company or this area of the organisation. This is as important as discussing your past experiences and skills: “Show your passion in your application. When I speak to managers, they often tell me that they want to see the passion and behaviours to learn and develop. They can teach skills to be able to do the job, but not the passion” explains Joy who oversees Emerging Talents at Balfour Beatty.

The employability skills you need to stand out

In 2007, the Institute of Directors report highlighted that 64% of the directors surveyed (out of 500) stated that graduates employability skills were more important than the specific occupational, technical or academic knowledge/skills associated with their degree. This remains true today and is something we observe when working with employers or reviewing job opportunities on the Equate CareerHub website. Employers are often looking for new recruits with soft transferrable skills that they believe will help the employee carry out the role effectively. That is why being able to identify those skills and demonstrate how you’ve previously used them is so important! One of the most common employability skills that employers are looking for are communications and teamwork – they are both essential to learn and grow in the professional world.

Students can sometimes be surprised by how important soft skills can be in the workplace. We use these skills everyday without noticing or thinking about them much. Itziar shared her personal experience of this: “One thing that I have experienced at Balfour Beatty is that when you come into your job, you really work as part of a team. It is not about you as an individual but about your team and how you are going to work together. You learn from people you work with from all levels and backgrounds”.

Another reason why communications skills are so important in the workplace is the ability to ask for feedback. This is not always an easy task… It can be intimidating to ask for feedback from more senior professionals, but the reality is that it is often well perceived and valued in the workplace: “Never be afraid to ask a question. People will respect you because you are acknowledging you don’t know the answer, and you want to learn from them” explained Joy during the Meetup. Employers and managers do not expect students or graduates to know everything from day one – they are looking for individuals who have the potential and mindset to grow and develop.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to career-building

Itziar and Martyna had very different experiences and career journeys into STEM:

I wanted to do Maths, then I thought about being an architect before choosing the Engineering career path. But to be honest, it started quite early for me. When I was young and used to go on school trips, every time I would bring back home lots of pictures of buildings I saw. So, I think it has always been there” shared Martyna.

It was quite different for meI liked maths, philosophy but I didn’t know what to do really. However, I was lucky enough to have in my personal environment people who encouraged me and always made me think that everything was possible and that I could fit in. A friend of my parents who was an Engineer himself, said to me once: why don’t you try this? I did start by doing some teaching because I was not sure I was confident enough to be an engineer but then I realised being an Engineer is what I wanted to do”, Itziar told us.

Deciding to pursue a career in Engineering (or any STEM-related topic really) is not always easy and can be intimidating for some women students. This is partially due to the fact that the industry is still very much male-dominated which makes it more difficult for women to see themselves taking this career path. However, we are seeing more and more women in STEM sharing their personal experiences and mentoring younger women, but we also see more and more employers – like Balfour Beatty – taking action to create a more inclusive and diverse work environment for all. One tip shared during our Meetup to help women students overcome their fears was to work on their confidence.

Try to work on your confidence as early as possible in your career because the more confident we are, the more respected we are in the industry. That confidence helped me and resulted in the fact that I never had any bad experience, everyone has always been friendly and open-minded” explained Martyna.

If you don’t know how to start building this confidence, you can ask for help at your Careers service at your university or college or look at organisations like Equate who provide free CPD opportunities for women in STEM. These networks can be a great place to start! They also give you an opportunity to build new relationships and develop your networking skills. Building these relationships early on in your career will not only build your confidence but could also lead to a new job opportunity. Martina’s story is a good example of this:

I did a summer placement at Balfour Beatty in July 2019 and went back to university to complete my final year. During the first semester, one of the project managers came to give a presentation. I mentioned to him that I had a fantastic time at Balfour Beatty and 3 hours later, I received an email from the regional director asking me to send him my CV…and that is basically how I got the job and joined Balfour Beatty in July 2020 as a graduate”.

It was great to not only hear from inspirational women in Engineering like Martyna and Itziar but also to see the commitment employers like Balfour Beatty have in creating a more inclusive and diverse workplace. We know this is needed to create a more equitable STEM market for Scotland and to ensure we have a competitive industry that can face today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.

Did you know?

Balfour Beatty is a member of the 5% Club! As a member of The 5% Club the company:

  • Commits to a minimum of 5% of the workforce being either an apprentice, graduate or placement student in training – currently Balfour Beatty sit at 6.03% for the UK.
  • In 2020 the company committed to a 30% increase in our graduate, apprentice and trainee recruitment compared to their 2019 intake.


About Equate Meetups: Equate Meetups are informal events that allow employers committed to ED&I to connect with women in STEM and discuss the job market, the industry and coming job opportunities.