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Making of a role model: Bechtel's Ailie MacAdam

The construction giant’s global rail sector lead on her remarkable engineering journey and why the tide may finally be turning for industry equality.

“Only eight out of 53 in High Speed 2’s construction directorate are women; in Network Rail’s Infrastructure Projects division, only five out of 88 are women.”

Bechtel’s Ailie MacAdam sinks to her chair when she hears the findings of CN’s analysis of female representation in the rail sector.

“It’s shocking isn’t it? When you put it in numbers like that it does just sound so shocking,” she says, pulling herself back up. “But I will say with these bodies, it is not through the want of trying.”

Now Bechtel’s global rail sector lead, Ms MacAdam is regarded as one of the UK’s most prominent female engineers.

With a CV that includes project manager roles on the multi-billion-pound Central Artery Highway / Tunnel project in Boston, the £900m refurbishment of St Pancras station and, most recently, Crossrail, there are few people – male or female – that have done more in the industry.

I meet the 54-year-old at the Blackfriars offices of Bechtel, the company she has been with for her entire working life. But her association with the global engineering giant has not been the only constant throughout her time in the industry.

“I have been in a male-dominated environment all my career, I don’t know anything different,” she tells me. “The more women we can get into senior leadership roles, the more it will start to snowball.”

Engineering born and raised

With a 2,000-strong team across all seven continents, it must feel a long way away from when Ms MacAdam was a 16-year-old picking her A-level subjects in the early 1980s.

Engineering was a strong influence on her upbringing: her father was a mechanical engineer and her godfather a chemical engineer. “It is really rare to find a woman engineer of my age whose dad, uncle or brother wasn’t an engineer,” she tells me, recalling her work experience with her godfather’s company.

“It is not just about informing girls and boys about engineering; it is about getting to their parents too”

She believes it was this kind of exposure to engineering was crucial in attracting her to the sector and will be equally important in drawing in the next cohort of female workers.

“It is not just about informing girls and boys about engineering; it is about getting to their parents too,” she says. “Studies show that the decision about the kind of careers people enter is heavily influenced by their parents. If you haven’t had the interaction that explains what engineering really can do by the time you have chosen your GCSEs, it is often too late.”

Ailie MacAdam global rail sector lead Bechtel Crossrail 2

Ailie MacAdam global rail sector lead Bechtel Crossrail 2

One of her most recent management roles was on Crossrail

After leaving school, Ms MacAdam chose to study chemical engineering at Bradford University – her first glimpse of a male-dominated environment. “When I decided to do engineering at university, I didn’t think too much of it,” she smiles. “It was not until I got there and I was one of only three women out of 40 I thought, ‘What have I let myself in for?’”

Her studies at Bradford led to work placements in industry, including a year working in the German wastewater sector. She realised that in Germany there was a difference in cultural attitudes towards engineers, but not necessarily stereotypes of what an engineer should look like.

“I think again you can get a bit stereotypical when you talk about leadership in terms of women and men”

“Engineers are held in higher esteem in Germany, they are on a par with doctors. You would be called ‘Herr engineer’ everywhere.”

From there she secured a work placement at Bechtel that has turned into a three decade-long relationship.

Romania to Iraq

Her time at Bechtel has taken Ms MacAdam across the globe, working on engineering projects everywhere from the Netherlands to the US to Iraq.

Being a woman, she feels, has benefited her in a number of jobs. “Through my career I have often used being a bit different as an advantage – it has brought value to the team and customer.”

In Iraq, Ms MacAdam says a lot of the team sent out to do the work were female and this was beneficial in the years following the Iraq-Iran war, with people feeling a lot more comfortable dealing with women than with men.

Her first management experience saw her lead a team carrying out an environmental impact assessment in Romania just after the country’s revolution in 1989. Has being a woman shaped her leadership style, or made her a better manager?

She pauses.

“I think again you can get a bit stereotypical when you talk about leadership in terms of women and men.”

“Helping the environment, helping the community, helping people in a crisis: that is what engineering is all about and that is why I love it. Females are more interested in output”

She feels her management strengths lie in really getting to know each member of her teams and ensuring a focus throughout on the output and a project’s end goal. It’s an approach she has taken on all her management roles, whether in Romania, on St Pancras or at Crossrail.

On the latter, Ms MacAdam feels it was not only being a female manager but being a manager of more women that has led to the success of the project, which is currently on time and on budget.

Bechtel’s Crossrail team was made up of 30 per cent women throughout its role as project delivery partner of the £14.8bn project. “Crossrail’s inclusive approach was one of the key reasons for that,” she says. “And part of that approach is making sure you have got a diverse team.”

Satisfying consequences

“Outputs” is a word that continues to crop up in our conversation, and it is clear Ms MacAdam gets most satisfaction from the impact her projects have once the construction process is complete.

“Helping the environment, helping the community help people live their lives, helping people in a crisis: that is what engineering is all about and that is why I love it,” she tells me. “Females are more interested in output.”

Ailie MacAdam global rail sector lead Bechtel 4

Ailie MacAdam global rail sector lead Bechtel 4

Nevertheless, she believes construction and engineering is rarely sold on outcomes. “The way we talk about it in industry is often about big pieces of kit, machines, TBMs and all of that sort of stuff, but we do need to understand how that appeals to different genders,” she says. “It needs a facelift.”

She also believes the industry needs to sell that message outside of the silos in which it currently communicates. “I think we are great at talking within the industry about the great stuff we do,” she says. “All this interaction between ourselves is great, but that is not doing the job of creating that facelift for those outside of the industry.”

Work-life balance

The way she talks so passionately about infrastructure, it is easy to forget that Ms MacAdam is not actually a civil engineer. It was in 1995 when she moved with her husband – a chemical engineer like her godfather – to the US, where she says she “caught the bug for building stuff”.

But it was not only a love of infrastructure she picked up while in Boston – Ms MacAdam’s two children were born there. “America [my job] was just set up better to respond to [women having children]. The facilities were there and everything that goes with helping you get back to work is in place.”

She laughs as she tells me about trying to juggle motherhood and project management duties at the same time. “I breastfed for a year after having them,” she says, recalling having to regularly pump breast milk while sat in the back of a shed in the middle of a construction site in Boston. Her message to would-be mums? “You can do it. I would definitely do it again.”

“I love my job and I work really hard at it, but the fact that my family is my number one priority, I think makes me do my job better”

It is clear her family and her children play a massive role in her life. She later shows me the picture of her 20-year-old daughter and teenage son that sits on her desk. But she is very honest about how she has had to confront the work- life balance decisions faced by a mother who has such a high-profile job.

“I love my job and I work really hard at it, but the fact that my family is my number one priority, I think makes me do my job better. My children are a huge part of my and my husband’s life and I don’t think we have lost anything; I think my work and my husband’s work has enriched our lives.”

More on women in construction

Ms MacAdam’s engineering pedigree hasn’t convinced her daughter to follow suit though; she is currently at university studying psychology. Although she may not have passed on the engineering and construction bug, Ms MacAdam hopes seeing her mum having a successful career has given her daughter confidence that she can achieve great things.

“From a female point of view, I think it is great that my daughter has seen her mother being successful at work. It is an important part of role modelling.”

Battling bias

Ms MacAdam is clear that she feels the industry needs an image change when presenting itself to those outside the industry, but she also feels deeper changes are needed in the psyche of people in the sector. For her, a lot of the lack of women in industry management roles is down to unconscious bias – a bias that she has recognised in herself.

“Every person I had seen in that role was a white, middle-aged man. There is me, who has been about equality throughout my career, showing my bias”

She explains to me an incident a few years ago where she was working with a headhunter to find someone to fill an engineering role in her team. When asked what attributes candidates required, she found herself automatically picturing a white middle-aged man.

“It was because every person I had seen in that role was a white, middle-aged man,” she says. “There is me, who has been a champion of equality throughout my career, showing my bias.”

Bechtel has focused on addressing bias across the company over the past two years. This has led to a 20 per cent rise in the number of women holding senior positions across the business.

Ms MacAdam hopes this approach can be rolled out across the industry too.

It is often said that clients make the rules in the industry and construction firms merely play the game. Ms MacAdam disagrees with this sentiment. “It drives me nuts when the industry waits for the client to direct.”

She believes the business case for more diverse workforces is clear in terms of skills, but also performance. “There has been study after study that shows a diverse team is more successful and achieves better results,” she says.

“There is a responsibility that the way you execute a public job should reflect the environment, culture and the make-up of the community you are building for”

A study by management consultants McKinsey last year found that companies in the top quartile of gender-diversity were 15 per cent more likely to achieve financial returns greater than the national average.

But there is a balance and she says clients need to increase their efforts too. “If a project is publicly funded there is a responsibility to recognise that really the way you execute the job should reflect the environment, culture and the make-up of the community you are building for.”

Does this mean the introduction of quota systems in procurement by major clients? The US, for example, has used quota systems on public construction contracts for decades.

Ms MacAdam is unsure if this would work in the UK. “I’m not going to give you a straight answer on that. That gets you into questions about targets and quotas and all of that kind of stuff and there are unintended consequences unless you play that properly.”

With CN’s latest analysis ringing in her ears, Ms MacAdam agrees the industry has a long way to go. However, she is more hopeful than ever for the future. The government, educational institutions and the industry are more aligned today, she argues.

“I don’t think there has ever been as much activity between all three of these cornerstones,” she says. “They are all talking to one another and never before has there been a desire to do something really different.”

I have more questions to ask, but Bechtel’s global rail lead is needed at a meeting.

The time for talk is over. For Ms MacAdam, actions speak louder than words.

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