Women engineers on the move
Like the building industry, the transport sector is undergoing deep-seated change to ensure a sustainable and mobile future, particularly for towns and cities. And this change needs engineers, to automate and secure networks and make them as green as possible. Tasks that Nouama Bouasria and Noémie Bouillod know well. Nouama is a structural engineer specialised in BIM and is working on the Grand Paris Express project, and Noémie is an assistant project manager for a mission on the Lyon underground railway. In their view, gender isn’t really an issue for choosing to work in transport, but a passion for the sector definitely is.
Women engineers often work in sectors that are still perceived by some as masculine domains. The building and civil engineering sector falls into this category, as does transport. “For several months I’ve been an ambassador for the French association called “Girls on the move” (“Elles bougent“), as part of a partnership set up with my company. The objective is to give talks in secondary schools and colleges to introduce girls to lesser-known careers and inspire them to work in engineering and sectors such as transport”, Nouama explains. “I’ve seen there’s still a tendency to think that the engineering profession is only for men. I’ve even heard girls say that, in any case, in engineering their boss would always be a man. So I’m also there to get rid of this type of preconception, because in fact things are changing”.
The most important thing, Nouama goes on to say, is to let people dream and turn those dreams into ambitions. That’s how Nouama has got where she is today: a structural engineer specialising in BIM, working in the BIM project management consultancy team set up to help the Grand Paris company integrate BIM into the Grand Paris Express mega-project.
For Nouama, it all began after a two-year specialised maths programme following on from her baccalaureat. It was then that she joined the Eole Supérieure des Géomètres et Topographes du Mans, specialising in geometry and topography, before going on to study a Masters 2 in structural design at the University of Lorraine in Nancy. “I discovered what I really wanted to do during a work placement in a design office”, she recounts. That was when she realised there was no agile communication between the various players of a construction project, and that regular mail was still used to communicate with the architect. “That triggered in me a desire to find a solution to the problem and create seamless information sharing between project players. As part of my personal research I discovered BIM methodology. So I decided to focus on that for my thesis and specialise even further by studying for a Masters in integrated BIM design and the lifecycle of buildings and infrastructure at the École des ponts et l’ESTP in Paris“, Nouama adds.
For Noémie Bouillod, a young, newly-graduated engineer, the key has also been to follow her dreams. And so, at 23 years old, she’s an assistant project manager in charge of construction work batches for a PMC project designed to deal with the obsolete video-surveillance and sound system in Lyon’s underground railway. “I love my job. It gives me a real sense of purpose and I’m learning every day”, she says.
Having taken the engineering science option for her baccalaureat, the next logical step for Noémie was an engineering school – INSA in Lyon – where she specialised in industrial engineering. “During my studies, and so far in my career, I’ve never come across any unpleasant comparisons with male counterparts, or any stigmatisation. At high school, it was a bit different though. For instance, a teacher advised me against taking the engineering science option as I risked being the only girl on the course”, Noémie remembers. “I didn’t listen to him, because otherwise no woman would opt for studies in a “masculine” domain. I truly believe that school, and the family circle, have a key role to play in gender diversity for the engineering industry, and the transport sector especially. Nowadays, engineering schools are pretty much open to everyone, and more and more companies have understood the benefits of creating teams that are diverse, not only in terms of gender but also in terms of age and profession.
When you have the right skills, your gender doesn’t matter
Both Nouama and Noémie work in a sector that is male-dominated, but that’s not negatively affecting either of them. They’ve found their place in their industry. For Nouama, although both on the front-line and at top management level there’s still some way to go in how women are perceived and the jobs available to them, the real issue is to motivate women to join such sectors. “In France we already have a female transport minister, but that’s not enough. We need women out there on the TV and social media. They’re the ones who will influence future generations of girls and show them that careers in these sectors are possible and open to everyone“, she says.
As far as these two women engineers are concerned, neither the workplace, nor the knowledge or skills required to be an engineer are obstacles to women who are seeking a career in the industry. “For me, teams are made up of human beings with complementary skills. We may have similar, or highly complementary abilities, but each person is different and brings their individual contribution to the team as a whole”, points out Noémi. “We all have different ways of reasoning, organising our work and communicating, and that’s got nothing to do with gender. This is what I see as the real meaning of diversity and its real added value”.
To make diversity truly work, Noémie believes there’s one vital issue that companies need to tackle. Although we still need to focus on equal pay and breaking the glass ceiling, “I think the most important thing is to address the practical aspects of gender diversity. Wanting to attract women to the industry is all well and good, but what really needs to be done is to adapt assignments, jobs, scheduling, and individual and collective work methods to today’s lifestyles. Both mothers and fathers now pick up their children from school or have to be available when they’re ill. And men as well as women want to have a good work-life balance”.
So, in the transport sector, as elsewhere, the ingenuity required of engineers to meet the technical, operational, financial, human and ecological challenges of the future has nothing to do with being a man or a woman. As shown by Nouama and Noémie it comes from being determined and passionate about what you do, whatever your gender.