Civil / Structural Engineering

The Woman Engineer With The Sky-High Career

Roma Agrawal worked on the design of The Shard’s foundations and the steel spire at the very top. Find out how she got there - and why she's promoting engineering to students.

Roma Agrawal sees no reason why women shouldn’t pursue engineering (Photo: Nicola Evans, WSP)

Roma Agrawal sees no reason why women shouldn’t pursue engineering (Photo: Nicola Evans, WSP)

Only a few years after studying physics at University, Roma Agrawal found herself working as a Structural Engineer for WSP on the construction of the tallest building in the European Union.
The Shard is built! – so now what?
I’m working on the refurbishment of a house built in the early 1700s, a rather different job to The Shard. I’m also working on some residential projects very close to rail lines in central London.
Is it typical to have two or three different projects on the go at the same time?
It happens a lot. I was working exclusively on the Shard for most of that project, but that was a one-of-a-kind. I've also worked on a footbridge in Newcastle for Northumbria University and the refurbishment of Crystal Palace Station. I’ve been at WSP for eight years and haven’t been bored one day.
What was your job on the Shard?
I was part of the team which designed the foundations. I also worked on the steel spire at the very top, which houses the viewing gallery with amazing sights out over London.
And more generally, what's the day-to-day working life of a Structural Engineer.
We first work with architects on conceptual design. They have ideas – and we find ways of making their designs stand up and make sure they can be built safely. Next we run through the design phase, which involves computerised scenarios and hand calculations - ensuring the building stands up, and also that every stage of construction is safe. We work together with other engineers, to ensure everything from heating to drainage is sorted out. Finally – we build! Regular visits to site are important to make sure the original design is adhered to and also to sort out problems that inevitably arise.
What advice would you give students who want to join you at WSP or get a great job elsewhere in Structural Engineering?
When I was looking for jobs, I listed companies, starting from 'A', and applied to them one by one. So if you want to join WSP, I’d advise starting at 'Z'!
In current market conditions you have to apply for many jobs, choose a range of different companies in terms of size and specialisms. Also, do thorough research: your cover letter should not be a cut-and-paste job, but tailored to the company.
It's also a good idea to go to careers fairs. If you meet people, you have more chance of them remembering you when it comes to reading your application. Otherwise you’re just another piece of paper or email. 
Does WSP recruit from particular schools?
We recruit from all over the United Kingdom and abroad. We go to many university careers fairs every year, and the graduates who join us come from all over the country. There’s a good variety among the staff here.
You won the Institution of Structural Engineer’s Young Structural Engineer of the Year Award in 2011. And in 2012 you were an Institution of Engineering andTechnology Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award finalist. Congratulations! But why aren’t there more women engineers?
The industry average is about 7% or 8%; at WSP we are higher at 20%. I visit schools and universities, trying to address that imbalance by explaining what engineering is and why girls should consider it as a career. I can see a lot more young women engineers joining the company. I see a lot more interest too among young students, although there is a long way to go.  I don’t believe there is any reason why women shouldn’t pursue engineering. Your gender, background and university don’t matter; the only thing that matters is if you’re a good engineer and can work well in a team.
Do you sometimes find the profession intimidating?
The offices are totally professional, like in any industry. Being on site, though, is very male dominated, so I can understand that it might be intimidating for some. But I love going to site, because I love watching our designs being built. The majority of women engineers I know have worked on site and haven’t faced too many issues.
Is that what drew you in to engineering in the first place, a visit to site?
I studied physics at university, because I didn’t know what career I wanted at the time. My eureka moment was when I worked with mechanical engineers in the University of Oxford Physics Department, who were designing particle accelerators for CERN. I found that amazing.
I realised that physics, as much as I loved it, couldn’t exist without the equipment that makes these experiments possible – which is all engineering. I found that fascinating and satisfying: applying physics and maths to something real, that you can hold or see.
After my physics degree I studied at Imperial College for the MSc in General Structural Engineering.
Does it matter that you studied physics as an undergrad, and only did a masters in engineering?
Once you start work it really doesn’t make a difference. Sometimes having a different background can be an advantage, as it gives the team some diversity. The masters degree was very challenging for me. Most people on the course either had an engineering bachelors degree or had worked in the industry for a few years. But there were a lot of group projects, so I learned from my peers and lecturers.
What are your thoughts for the future - for yourself and engineering in the UK?
I’m very happy at WSP and look forward to continuing work on a wide range of different projects. I want to build on my work in schools and universities. We have to make sure we’re spreading the word to young students. I love doing that, and my company has been very supportive. Also, I’d like to be more involved with institutions, such as the Institute of Structural Engineers.
As far as the future of engineering is concerned, there’s a long way to go, but there are some great initiatives - like STEMNET, WISE and WES - to get UK students excited about engineering. I’m very excited about the future of engineering in the UK.



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