13th February 2023

Inspiring the next generation of women and girls in Geology

To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we asked our Assistant Geotechnical Engineer, Shannon Wade to share her experience in the hope she can inspire others to pursue a career in geology.

International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a day for celebrating women in science and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects. The day recognises the often-underappreciated role women and girls play in STEM and advocates for their full and equal access and participation.

The demand for these skills is rising quickly as society grows more dependent on technology.

These subjects are at the core of our business. Every day, our teams apply their STEM skills to our operations, inspiring innovation and solutions.

However, it’s a well-known fact that the demand for these skills is not reflected in the number of students taking STEM courses. And attracting young people, especially women, to these careers is difficult.

Here Shannon talks about her role as an Assistant Geotechnical Engineer, what inspired her to choose a career in Geology, how we can encourage more women to join the industry and advice she would give to the young women and girls of the future.

Tell us about your role as an Assistant Geotechnical Engineer.

My role as an Assistant Geotechnical Engineer is really varied. I get to travel around the country a lot visiting a variety of different sites with different challenges. An average week for me never looks the same. On site, I supervise rigs and ground investigations and perform post works monitoring. In the office, I spend my time processing the data and report writing ready to issue the data to our clients. You can never get bored because it’s ever-changing. Even when I’m in the office the tasks vary so much and there’s always something to problem-solve your way around.

How much time do you spend in the field versus in the office?

I think I’m pretty lucky to have a fairly even split between the site and office time. If I have a handful of big projects underway, I can spend between 3-5 weeks on site undertaking various tasks but this is then usually followed up by a handful of weeks in the office to process the data, ensure samples are sent to the labs and write up the reports for issue.

What challenges do you face?

Sometimes the biggest challenge is finding a female toilet on site! The lack of facilities for women is an issue, and it prevents women who may be thinking about joining the industry from doing so. On some sites, female toilets are like gold dust. Other than that, I think the biggest challenge can be the weather, it’s hard to have a smile when it’s coming in sideways, you’re caked in mud and the progress can sometimes be slow. However, for every rainy day, the summer days are absolutely glorious on site.

What inspired you to choose a career in STEM (Geology)?

I had a really great GCSE Geology teacher who inspired me to pursue geology at A-Level and then at University. I had a lot of support from my family about choosing geology and was really happy to have found something I enjoyed.

What training and education are required for your role?

My BSc Applied Geology degree comes in handy for the job, but I wish I knew more about apprenticeships and other routes into the industry. I’ve been really lucky that any training needed has been provided to me. Since joining the industry I’ve undertaken a number of courses including SSSTS, CSCS, PTS, SEATS and a handful of others. I’m working towards my MSc in Civil Engineering in the hope to gain a greater understanding of how Geotechnical Engineering is applied.

What skills do you need to succeed in your role?

Resilience, problem-solving and a good sense of humour are my top three. Sometimes you’ll hit stumbling blocks with site work, and it can often be challenging. Even the worst weather days on site when you’re facing problems can’t be that bad after a joke and a laugh about how muddy you are for how little progress seems to have been made.

What is it like to be a woman in engineering/geology?

I’ve definitely been overlooked, and people have doubted my ability to do my job. Sometimes it takes a lot to prove people wrong, but I’ve definitely had more positive experiences being a woman in engineering than I have negative ones. For every bad experience or negative comment, I’ve got my colleagues in my corner supporting me.  I came into the industry with one family and now have a dozen bonus brothers, fathers and grandads looking out for me. Although saying that, we have had a laugh on a few occasions about being taught how to change a vehicle light bulb or carrying heavy bags across the site.

Do you feel that your gender gives you a different perspective and experience from your male counterparts?

I feel like sometimes I’m a lot more aware of my colleague’s wellbeing on site than my male counterparts but it’s almost like a family on site. Everyone looks out for everyone, the fact I’m a woman doesn’t tend to change anything.

How do you think we can attract and retain more women in geotechnical engineering/ engineering?

I think advertising really must play a part. I wish I’d seen posts and articles about apprenticeships and women in heavier industries when I was growing up and perhaps, I’d have been able to make a more conscious choice about my career rather than following my interest at the time. I’m really lucky I’ve fallen into something I enjoy but I would have loved to learn what else was out there and explore the options younger.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into this role?

Take every opportunity given to you. Enter that science competition, go for the open day, and attend that careers fair. Make sure you are pursuing something you love, and it makes all the difference. Research the variety of opportunities available and always ask questions if you’re unsure about something.  I’d also really recommend fully researching any companies you’re interviewing for beforehand and ensuring you’re fully prepared.

Visit our careers page for more information on Van Elle opportunities.