Shona Wood, our Head of Integrated Project Delivery & Architecture, discusses how future generations of female designers and engineers can fulfill their potential…

Who are you and what is your role?
I joined WSP in the Middle East just over five years ago in 2015 as part of a multi-disciplinary supervision team for a large scale project in Al Ain.
In March 2017 I was appointed Head of Architecture when our architecture team was a considerably smaller group of 12 people who were predominantly focused on obtaining statutory authority permitting and approvals for our Dubai-based projects.

From 2017 to 2020 as our Property & Buildings business continued to grow and develop, and we were appointed in a lead consultancy capacity on a number of large scale multi-disciplinary projects, the profile and size of our architectural team evolved in response to the new requirement for architectural supervision on these projects. At the end of 2019 the team size had grown from 12 to around 50 people the majority of which were site-based in supervision roles across our projects in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

At the beginning of 2020 I was asked to take on the role of Head of Integrated Project Delivery & Architecture – a combined team of 75 technical professionals.

Tell us about your engineering journey?  
I studied Architecture at Strathclyde University, Glasgow graduating in 1985 and then became a RIBA chartered architect in October 1986 after completing my professional exams.
I was working as a Site Architect for Sir Robert McAlpine in their Design & Build Division in Glasgow when my husband was offered the opportunity to relocate from Glasgow to Dubai on a 3-year contract with Holford Associates to design the first hotel resort development for HH Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum on Jumeirah Beach. They didn’t need to ask us twice and in April 1992 we arrived in the UAE.

Have you experienced any barriers as a female in the industry and how did you overcome these?
When I enrolled at Strathclyde University, School of Architecture in 1978 there were 36 students in my year group of which only six were female. Of the original six only two of us completed the 7-year degree course and we sat the professional exam together in 1986.

Then when I joined Sir Robert McAlpine I was the only female technical professional in the Design & Build Division so always being in the minority has always been my normal and not something that I had consciously focused on or addressed until more recently.

There are no physical barriers but the odds are definitely stacked against female professionals in the construction and engineering industries generally and to an even greater extent in the Middle East where there are additional cultural sensitivities that need to be recognised and addressed.

Engineering and construction have traditionally been male-dominated sectors but in my experience technical ability, professionalism, persistence and a sense of humour have served me well particularly as a young graduate on the training grounds of Glaswegian building sites.

I’ve also been fortunate to have had the support of my senior management throughout my career. The management have always set the tone in terms of business culture and professional behaviours (even though some of that definitely got lost in translation on some of my early sites in Glasgow) but it was all character building and brought me to where I an today.

What achievements are you most proud of in your time as a Head of Department / Discipline.
As the focus of this weeks’ campaign is ‘Women in Engineering’ I think that it’s fitting to say that one of the things I’m extremely proud of is the gender balance, diversity and inclusion represented within our team.Specifically, in terms of gender balance, almost 25% of the talented professionals within the team are female across all grades and, in addition, we have a wide and diverse range of nationalities and cultures.

As we move into new geographies this will continue to be a key focus for growth within the team.The other thing that I’m proud of is the work-life balance that is not easily achieved particularly as a new parent, a single parent or a parent of young children.

Balancing career ambitions and parenting is challenging in any profession and I would be the first to admit that although I’ve always been a working mum it was parenting not promotion that was my priority for many years until my children were older and more independent.

That was my choice but everyone has to find a balance that works for them as individuals and their family. What is important is that as a business we support our female colleagues in their careers and their choices by acknowledging the unique set of challenges they face in their career paths.

How do we hold ourselves accountable as an industry when it comes to Gender Balance & Diversity?
Gender balance, diversity and equality should be a key area of focus for all businesses. Unfortunately, the engineering and construction industry has traditionally been slow to address these issues but recent studies have highlighted the benefits to business of a diverse and balanced workforce and we are slowly seeing businesses in the sector take these findings on board.

With the formation of WSP’s Gender Balance Steering Committee last year, which is chaired by Dean McGrail, and the publication of our annual Gender Balance Report, we are leading the way and setting an industry standard for gender balance, diversity and inclusion in the MENA region. I am also passionately involved in WSP Middle East’s Women in Professional Services (WiPS) network, which is a group helping steer our business towards greater gender parity and gender balance. I’m proud to be part of the leadership team supporting these initiatives.

What do you think the future of engineering looks like?
Advances in digital technology continue to accelerate at a frenetic pace. Architects and designers are now routinely using artificial intelligence incorporated into bespoke software programmes in the building design process.

The challenges for the engineering and construction sectors will be focused around the adoption of these new digital technologies quickly enough whilst also addressing the challenges around new material technologies and manufacturing processes. As we become more environmentally aware, the focus on achieving a sustainable and closed loop project life cycle will hopefully become a priority for our industry.

What would you like to share with the next generation of females entering a STEM career?
I’d encourage all students to consider a career in design and engineering as it is interesting, challenging and rewarding on a daily basis. To the next generation of females entering our profession I’d say own your career and take every opportunity that you’re offered. If you have the ability, the determination and the right support you can fulfill your potential.