‘Opening up girls’ eyes’ to engineering
National Rail Awards winner AILIE MACADAM wants to use her successful career as an example and motivation for more women to pursue a career in engineering. PAUL STEPHEN reports
Having played a lead role in some of the UK’s largest civil engineering projects, Bechtel’s Global Rail Sector Lead Ailie MacAdam could deservedly lay claim to a National Rail Awards Outstanding Personal Contribution (Senior Management) award on the strength of her CV alone.
Her 30-year rise from joining the company as a graduate chemical engineer through to leading Bechtel’s entire global rail sector (it has a 2,000-strong team) has been truly remarkable, making her one of the UK’s most high-profile female engineers.
But with female engineers comprising just 6% of the total UK workforce, it is also MacAdam’s commitment to creating a more balanced gender mix in the UK rail sector that drew the attention of the National Rail Awards judges this year, earning her this most distinguished of accolades.
Standing out in a glittering portfolio of projects that MacAdam has proudly led is High Speed 1 (originally the Channel Tunnel Rail Link). She was involved between 2003 and 2008 throughout the line’s construction, including leading the refurbishment of St Pancras International and bringing Eurostar into operational service at Project Director.
Crossrail followed. She was Central Section Delivery Director between 2009-14, and in charge of delivering £ 7.5 billion worth of infrastructure including 13 miles of twin-bore tunnels beneath central London that will open to passengers in December next year.
Having been elected a principal vicepresident in 2009 and then a senior vice- president in 2012, MacAdam was made Bechtel’s Managing Director, Global Rail upon her departure from Crossrail, before becoming Bechtel Infrastructure’s Managing Director in Europe and Africa in 2015, and then finally its Global Rail Sector Lead in September 2016.
She is also a fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers and a member of the Institution of Chemical Engineers.
In recent years, she has been responsible for a range of foreign projects, including a rail extension in Rio de Janeiro ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games.
She is currently based in Sydney, where in May Bechtel was appointed by Transport for New South Wales as its official delivery partner for the Tunnels and Excavation package of Stage 2 of the Sydney Metro project. This involves the delivery of nine and a half miles of twin-bore tunnels and six new sub-surface metro stations.
It was this deployment to the southern hemisphere that gave MacAdam an inkling that she was in the running for one of RAIL’s National Rail Awards. She tells RAIL that colleagues asked her if she might consider flying from Sydney to a business appointment in the United States by taking a considerably longer and more indirect route via London, in order to be present at the NRA ceremony at Grosvenor House on September 21.
She explains: “I knew there was a possibility [of winning an award], as I’m working in Sydney at the moment and I was specifically asked to come to London. But I was absolutely thrilled to win as this is an industry I love to work in. I feel very lucky to have held leadership positions on some fantastic projects with Bechtel for 30 years, and to have helped contribute in the way recognised by the award.
“When you look at past and present winners of NRAs, it’s an honour to be associated with some fantastic individuals and companies and to be mentioned in the same breath as them.”
To try to close the gender gap in rail engineering, MacAdam’s award-winning strategy has comprised three principal elements.
First and foremost, she has led by example - providing a powerful example of how women can pursue successful and rewarding careers in roles traditionally regarded as masculine.
Secondly, she is heavily active in organisations that share her ambitions and which aid the advancement of women in engineering and construction, such as WISE ( Women in Science and Engineering) and the Women’s Engineering Society. She also finds time to be a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Ambassador in schools, and supports the Your Life joint government and industry initiative to change perceptions that certain career paths are closed to women.
Last, but not least, MacAdam strongly advocates affirmative action being taken to eliminate the barriers that remain to women wanting to join the industry, and which undermine their retention.
This includes challenging attitudes towards maternity leave, creating strong peer groups such as Bechtel’s collaborative networking forum women@bechtel, and tackling the unconscious bias that still sometimes favours men for certain roles, and which prevents recruiters from being truly objective when considering candidates’ abilities.
Although firmly against using quotas that could be discriminatory, MacAdam feels that there is a place for using recruitment targets to focus the industry’s efforts.
By adopting this strategy, she directly helped Bechtel increase its number of female graduates in 2014 by 13%, while resignations from female employees fell from 20% to just 9% at the same time.
The percentage of Bechtel’s engineers that are female is now more than double the industry average at 14%, while on Crossrail that figure was 30%.
She adds: “I’m always looking for ways to contribute to the rail sector, and I recognised an opportunity to help the industry become more diverse. I’ve always seen it as a personal responsibility, and at Crossrail I was put in a position where I could directly make a huge difference on a project which is now held up as an example in this country and abroad.
“To move the dial, you have to shift the status quo while asking ourselves how we can get to 30% or 50% in a targeted way. After all, it is only what we do today that can make us become more diverse tomorrow.”
MacAdam says she is also pleased that the debate surrounding the recruitment of women has matured beyond arguments that are purely about political correctness, to the more tangible benefits that are on offer for progressive companies.
This includes increased profitability, which was reinforced by a report published by Network Rail on October 6, based on research that found better-performing teams were those that were more diverse - with gains in productivity, collaboration, sickness rates and motivation.
MacAdam feels that the diversity agenda is now beginning to gain more traction, although there is still some way to go before the 51% of the population that is female is properly reflected in rail engineering.
“Study after study has shown that more diversity results in better outcomes. No one can argue with that, and we need to be drawing from the whole population if we are to close the skills gap,” she says.
“I’m really motivated to make other women at least aware of that opportunity before they make their career choices. I target schools where I know that me being a woman might make an impact to open up girls’ eyes to what engineering really is, and not what parents and teachers might think it is.
“In the UK, I don’t think there has ever been a time when industry, the education system and government have been more aligned on this, which is incredibly encouraging. It is driven by the fact that we are so short of talent, and the projects we’re working on are so complex and require a whole new set of skills.
“We haven’t won the battle yet, but we are winning it. I find that my customers are generally very understanding of the role they have to play in enabling diversity through the supply chain.”
Study after study has shown that more diversity results in better outcomes. We need to be drawing from the whole population if we are to close the skills gap. Ailie MacAdam, Bechtel