23rd June 2023

Just go for it: International Women in Engineering Day

On the occasion of International Women in Engineering Day, we caught up with Joanna Kuzelewska, Senior Design Manager at Sir Robert McAlpine.

As the daughter of two engineers who spent her childhood playing with the family dog on site, a career in construction seemed a given for Joanna Kuzelewska, a Senior Design Manager at Sir Robert McAlpine.

But having secured her first job in the UK almost exactly twenty years ago, things haven’t always been plain sailing.

“When I first started working, I was the only woman actually on the site,” said Joanna. “There weren’t even female facilities on site and it could be humiliating having to ask to borrow the key from the main contractor’s office”.

Growing up and qualifying in Poland, Joanna moved to the UK at the turn of the millennium, initially finding it difficult to land a job in the sector, but determination and perseverance to continue doing what she loves most drove her to overcome the adversities. In the course of the last twenty years, though fifteen of which have been spent at Sir Robert McAlpine, Joanna has worked on an array of high-profile projects, including the Olympic Stadium, 62 Buckingham Gate, Olympia West Hall, The American Embassy and now the Westbury Hotel. 

She was recently named the “Best Contractor” at the prestigious European Women in Construction and Engineering Awards (WICEA), an accolade that Joanna describes as a “real cherry on top” of her career.

“It’s great to be able to walk around London and say, “I helped build that”, she added. “It’s really rewarding when you get this feeling of accomplishment and know that all the long hours spent on perfecting design has paid off.”

According to Joanna, the sector has made phenomenal progress at promoting gender diversity in the last twenty years. “Huge strides have been made when it comes to diversity and inclusion”, she said. “Gender diversity on site has improved significantly since I started working and so we now have women working in all sorts of project roles, be it as traffic marshals or skilled workers.”

For all the progress, though, Joanna argues that much more still needs to be done in a sector where women make up just 17% of the engineers which is why International Women in Engineering Day is so important.

For one, Joanna argues that it is vital that the sector “doesn’t forget about those who have talent”, particularly women on maternity leave whose path to promotion would otherwise be slowed. It is also vital, Joanna notes, that all are equally rewarded and afforded the same opportunities.

But when it comes to the question of breaking down stereotypes, Joanna argues that we as much need to overturn perceptions of the sector itself as those of women.

“There’s this idea that all jobs in construction involve working on site. Of course, there are lots of hugely exciting, fulfilling and important roles that do, but there are also lots of office-based roles too that are still vitally important to a project. There is a full spectrum of work you can do that require the skills a lot of women possess”.

Joanna Kuzelewska

After all, Joanna has seen first-hand the fantastic skills women bring to bear on projects across the country. “The women I work with are really good communicators and team players”. As Joanna points out, it’s ultimately only by getting more women into the sector that these skills can be used to secure real, lasting change.

This cuts to the heart of International Women in Engineering Day. With #makesafetyseen the theme of the day, Joana says that, for her, creating a culture of safety includes establishing an environment “where no-one is afraid of speaking up and everyone is seen equally”.

“At the start of their careers”, Joanna notes, “many women are afraid of speaking up as they feel they may be ignored. We need to eliminate these barriers as it’s really important that everyone, be they women or younger employees feel that they are able to have their voice heard and meaningfully contribute to an overall goal. If they spot something that isn’t safe, or have a valuable idea, there needs to be space to speak up,” said Joanna.

“I have never been afraid to speak up, but we need to be prepared to stand up for others,” she added.

Joanna is passionate about safety, training staff and presenting on the issue. “I am a huge advocate of leading by example,” said Joanna. By making her compliance with on-site safety requirements visible, and by advising employees on the topic, she aims to help create a culture of safety where people truly feel empowered to speak up to ask if they don't feel safe.

And for young women considering a career in construction, Joanna says “just go for it”. Just like Joanna’s own daughter, who aspires to be an astronaut, the sky shouldn’t be the limit for women in the sector.

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