‘You need to get into the skin of those people… you are designing something that will definitely change their lives – it’s a big responsibility.’
So says Alba Menendez, a civil engineer with Arup, who’s currently based in Dublin. I say currently because as we talk about her career, it becomes clear that things can change fast in civil engineering.
Alba was working in her home city of Madrid when she took an opportunity to move to Ireland. ‘Within a week I quit my job, left our apartment, packed my things and came here’. A year later, she was needed at a project in the UK. In three days’ time. So she worked there during the week, flew back to Ireland Thursday nights and worked in the company’s Dublin office on Fridays before going to classes in Trinity College Dublin on Friday nights and all day on Saturdays. Then she travelled back to the UK to be on site for 9 am on Monday.
The TCD course was a Postgraduate Diploma in Project Management, through English, of course. She graduated with distinction.
It all sounds exhausting, but when you hear it from Alba, her response to each step is the same: ‘I was super, super excited’.
Before her career took off, Alba completed a MEng at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, including an academic year on exchange in Italy. After that, she earned a Certificate in Public-Private Partnership and Infrastructure Management in Madrid. She also spent two summers learning French in Nice and English in Australia.
Being able to speak 4 languages was invaluable when it came to finding work during Spain’s financial crisis. Alba got a position at the International Department of a Consultancy Company in Madrid in 2013, working mainly on African and Asian transportation projects.
In 2016 she was contacted by Arup Spain through LinkedIn. The company has worked on many world-famous projects, including The Sydney Opera House. Alba was thrilled: ‘If you like Civil Engineering – and I love it – it’s like being asked to play for Real Madrid’.
Arup decided to send Alba to Ireland, where she got to work on some high profile projects, including the N25 New Ross Bypass and the M11 Gorey to Enniscorthy motorway.
Alba’s always been aware that women are in the minority in the field of civil engineering, but was determined that would never prevent her working on her passion.
Throughout my career, I have felt that some people had treated me in a different way, not especially bad, but not taking me seriously or making me feel that my opinion was not as important. To fight this bias, I started to work very hard, to be extra prepared for every meeting. The collateral effect of all this extra preparation is that now I trust my own opinion more, I have a lot more self-confidence.
However, Alba feels the male-dominated atmosphere in civil engineering could have been a factor behind some female friends’ decisions to leave the industry.
She’s convinced that addressing and resolving a lack of diversity can only be a good thing:
‘If you have a team with five guys the same age and background, you bring a woman to the project and you get a different way of thinking. You need to be diverse – balance challenges opinions, it gets the most out of the team – a balance in gender, a balance in race, a balance in any different way of thinking will always bring value.
Alba is passionate about her work. Listening to her speak about her job would make anyone see road design and transport planning in a different light. I ask her about the greatest challenges in her role:
‘Working in different countries is challenging – the technical standards are different and all the background information you need to consider to deliver a successful project changes completely: the culture, the society, the economic situation, the weather, the environment… You need to get into the skin of those people because you’re designing something that will definitely change their lives, it’s a big responsibility.
‘You need to keep learning every day, be open to change. Today’s world is constantly changing so if you embrace change you can provide a better service, better infrastructure for the people.’
Of course, if those are the challenges, I want to know what are the best parts of being a civil engineer. With Alba’s trademark enthusiasm, she says: ‘the best part is the challenge…every day is different, every few months you get involved in a new project… it’s like having ten jobs where you have the chance to work with amazing people from different backgrounds so you never stop learning’
‘People tend to think that civil engineering is purely technical but creativity is essential to be a good engineer. Sometimes clients don’t know what they want and you need to guide them, to show them different ideas, to squeeze your brain and to be innovative until you find the one that clicks.’
The international nature of her job in Spain meant she was dealing with clients across the globe around the clock. So when Alba came to Ireland and the working day wound down at half past five, she found she had time on her hands. She’s adamant work-life balance is very important.
And what does Alba do with her spare time?
‘I love travelling, during the last year I’ve spent a few weekends travelling around Ireland, the UK or even Scandinavia. I love sport too – running, scuba diving, skiing or hiking. Last year I went to the Himalayas in India to climb my first 4,000 peak. The same way I aim for professional goals, I always have personal goals in my mind too.’
I ask about where those professional goals might find her in five years’ time. She wants to take on more responsibility and become a project manager. There aren’t many women in the industry, she admits, although there are some inspiring female role models in senior positions within Arup. She’s also keen to keep learning and admits it would be great to work on the first road for autonomous vehicles or a smart city project.
Her infectious enthusiasm prompts me to ask Alba if she’s done any motivational speaking, and she explains she has done some sessions with college students. But she felt compelled to challenge young women’s views of themselves and their ability:
‘Some girls have come to me and said that they are not good at maths, even though their marks are above the average in the class. I believe that girls are far more likely to believe they are worse at STEM subjects than they are and that the fact that they get better results in other subjects with less effort means that it’s not for them, that they just aren’t good enough’
‘As a woman in engineering, I feel a responsibility to see more women going into STEM careers, and I believe both business and academic institutions can contribute greatly. We need to work hard to boost girls’ confidence, to eliminate their fear of failure and to support them to become the next generation of female leaders.’