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Profile of Dr Alice Moncaster

Alice Moncaster-informal-2.jpg

Alice is a lecturer in the Department of Engineering and Deputy Director of the IDBE postgraduate Masters' course

How did you get into Engineering?

My parents are both from Arts backgrounds, and knew nothing at all about careers in engineering or sciences. However I think the fact that my father, in particular, was so very unpractical helped me to see myself as an engineer – I remember when I was about 16 his car got a puncture, and he rang me to come out on my bike and change the wheel for him. I later got a Saturday job with the local car mechanic. Most importantly though was the influence of my school. I went to a girls’ grammar school which was very strong in Physics and Maths, which were both subjects I enjoyed.   My Physics teacher in particular encouraged me to consider a career in engineering, and sent me to a Villiers’ Park week-long course.  We were also visited by the ‘WISE’ bus, and there were several initiatives to encourage more women into engineering at the time. 

What are you doing now and what are your plans for the future?

I studied at Cambridge then worked for ten years as a civil and then building structures design engineer.  In 2007 I decided to do a PhD to better understand the barriers to sustainable construction, and that led me to a career in academia. I’m now a lecturer in the Engineering Department, and one of the directors of a postgraduate masters course called Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment, run jointly with the Architecture Department.  My research looks at different aspects of sustainability, with a particular focus on reducing carbon emissions from construction processes and their product, the built environment.

What motivates you?

I believe that we are facing some huge issues at the moment around climate change.  No one person can solve the problems, but I hope that I can have a small impact through my work.  An important part of my research is using it to inform the people who make the decisions, including policy makers and designers.

I also think that I am motivated to stay because there are so few women engineers, particularly in the UK.  The lack of diversity and unconscious bias in the construction industry limits both design and the ability to innovate, and of course it is also damaging to the individual experiences of women at all stages in their careers. 

What has helped your career?

Starting with my physics teacher at school I have noticed the profound effect that teachers, senior colleagues and mentors have had on my self-belief and ability to carry on, throughout my career.  As an undergraduate I chose Newnham, one of the all-women colleges, and my Director of Studies was Claire Barlow who is now Deputy Head of Department.  I was taught by one other women, Sarah Springman, who was my final year project supervisor; Sarah is now Rector of ETH Zurich. When I later worked at Bristol University my mentor was Sally Heslop, now Head of Civil Engineering there.  And in my role at the IDBE I have worked closely with our external examiner Jacqui Glass, who is Professor of Architecture and Sustainable Construction at Loughborough.  Each of these amazing women has given me personal support as well as inspiration.

How have you overcome challenges and knockbacks in your career?

Sometimes it has been hard. Like many women in male-dominated environments I have suffered indirect discrimination at different times and, perhaps even more difficult, often loneliness.  In my first job after graduating I was sent to work in a small regional office where there were no other women at all – even the office administrator was a man. 

In my next job I turned down my direct line manager’s amorous advances, which made for a very unpleasant atmosphere for many months afterwards.

In the job after that I was the first engineer to ask to work part-time to help with childcare responsibilities, and was told that I wasn’t committed to my career. I was also paid less than men at the same grade as me, although I was doing the same job (and doing it far more efficiently as I always had to make sure everything was done before leaving to pick up the children).  These are only some examples, and there have been many others.

I didn’t confront any of these issues at the time, but I have now decided that individuals should fight where we can, in order to change things for the women following us.  Its not easy because I don’t feel that I’m a naturally confident person; this might be more common in women than men, or it might just be the effect of cumulative experiences like mine. 

How have you managed to balance family life and other interests with your career?

A particularly difficult time was when my husband developed a chronic illness and was unable to work for a few years; it was very hard to be the only breadwinner and also the parent of young children, while caring for him too.  My employer had very little sympathy, and would start office meetings at 5:30 so that I would been seen to be slacking when I had to leave at 6:00 to pick up my children, so I ended up moving jobs again.  However when my husband got better I then took time off to spend some quality time at home with my girls, and that was when I decided to do a PhD, which led to where I am now.  So fairly bad experiences can lead to positive life changes.

Currently my husband is able to work mostly from home, and because he is physically there he also does most of the house stuff, which has been a fantastic help.  I’m guessing that this is a little bit like having a wife…

Academia is also definitely much more flexible than working in industry.  There are some times when all the different aspects of work pile on top of each other and I just have to work after dinner and at weekends as well in order to get through it all. However in return the hours are very flexible, and I am able to work from home when my husband is away for his work, so long as I don’t have meetings or teaching. 

Do you have any role models?

See above!  We have also just run a competition to nominate Inspirational Women Engineers.  The 21 shortlisted entries are on display in the department, and they really do make inspirational reading, I hope for men as well as women!

Do you have any advice for women who are considering pursuing a career in Engineering?

It is a fantastic career.  There are so many crucial problems in the world which need engineering minds to solve, and these are sadly growing – mitigating and adapting our buildings for climate change, providing safe and resilient water and energy supplies, and ensuring that communities are protected from the increasing number of natural disasters such as flooding, are just a few which I have had some involvement with.  There is also clear evidence that more diversity (in the broadest sense) will develop better answers more quickly than the currently too homogenous engineering workforce.  I can’t say that it is particularly easy being in a minority, but things are changing and there is currently a resurgence of feminism and action at many levels. Recent changes in terms of family-friendly policies and discrimination awareness, within my own employer but also across the industry, as well as increasing numbers of women choosing to study and work in engineering, should mean that the next generation will have a better experience. I would say, look for role models and for mentors, male and female, who can help you through the tough times as well as encourage you to take risks and opportunities.  Believe in yourself and be your best.

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