A workplace for women17 May 2018
Tracey Williamson is the first female Chair of the British Dam Society; she is quite certain she will not be the last. However, to ensure that encouraging women into civil engineering is kept on the agenda, Williamson says that we need to keep talking about it, provide positive role models and demonstrate that this is a workplace for women.
When asked the question “why did you become a dam engineer”, my response is simply “by default, rather than by design”.
After graduating in 1996 with a 1st Class Honours Degree in Environmental Civil Engineering, I was keen to work in the bridge and highways industry. However, due to the economic climate, I accepted an offer to join the Coastal team of Mouchel (now part of WSP). During this time, I discovered my interest for working with water, with much of the design requiring ‘engineering judgment’ as opposed to the standards based approach that is predominant in many other areas of civil engineering. After five years with Mouchel, including two years in the Middle East, I returned to the UK, and in 2002, took up a position with KBR.
Following a secondment to the Environment Agency, I transferred there in 2005, and this was the point when I ‘fell’ into dam engineering. As the only Chartered Engineer, I was given the responsibility to look after several flood storage reservoirs and I quickly developed a passion for dam engineering. Encouraged by several members of the British Dam Society (BDS), I was elected to the Committee in 2008 and started my journey into the world of dams.
Soon after, I moved to HR Wallingford and became involved in a number of research and development projects within the dams industry including studies on the new risk-informed approach to reservoir safety management in the UK. It was also during this period that I was first appointed to the Panel of Supervising Engineers. In 2009, I had my first ICOLD experience at the congress and annual meeting in Brasilia, and I recall a moment when the BDS Chair at that time, Peter Mason, predicted that I would be the first female BDS Chair and this soon became an aspiration. Following Brasilia, I was delighted to be invited to become a member of the Technical Committee on the Environment by the Chair at that time, Jean-Pierre Chabal.
It is a point to note, that many of the decisive moments in my career have been instigated by male colleagues, who have given me the courage and belief to chase my dreams.
Another pivotal moment in my career occurred in 2011, when I was offered the role of Dam Safety Manager for Welsh Water. I was given the fantastic opportunity to build and train a team of thirty staff to improve the standard of safety of over 130 dams across Wales. This included managing a substantial programme of planned and reactive capital works.
In 2016, I moved to Arup, where I am currently an Associate Director, leading their UK’s West region dams and reservoirs team. I continue to work on many of the challenging Welsh Water dam rehabilitation projects, as well as developing business in other areas.
I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work on many fascinating projects during my career. These include the construction supervision of a new flood storage reservoir, as well as several dam safety improvement projects to upgrade spillways and increase the stability of dams.
One project I was particularly proud of was the rehabilitation of the 116-year old Upper Neuadd dam, which ensured its safety, whilst retaining the aesthetics of the Grade II listed structure.
Another design project that I am currently involved with comprises improvement of the stability of the 114-year old Wentwood dam valve tower and replacement of the valves and pipework, which required emptying the reservoir and managing the impacts of this.
I have also been involved with many incidents and emergency works, which can be quite an experience, especially when repairing burst pipework under flow conditions in restricted confined spaces, and repairing spillways in freezing conditions whilst managing floods.
Dam engineering is certainly varied, challenging and exciting work.
My role as the BDS Chair
True to Peter Mason’s prediction in 2009, I became the first female Chair of the BDS in March 2017, having previously served as Vice Chair since 2015. It was such an honour to be elected and to be a part of a list of truly great and well-renowned dam engineers.
I have been inspired by the changes that I have seen within the BDS over the past ten years, and the increased diversity that we now see within our society, both in terms of gender, age and ethnicity. I am motivated to continue this good work, and I recognise that as the first female Chair of the BDS, and also as the one of the youngest Chairs, I am a positive role model for both younger professionals and women within our industry. I would hope that these individuals will take encouragement from my time as Chair, and believe that if I can do it, then anything is possible for them as well.
There is still much work to be done, however, and this is why I have introduced a working group in the BDS Committee focused on improving the diversity and inclusivity of our membership. Additionally, we have a working group focused on enthusing the next generation of dam professionals. This group is engaging with schools and I’m proud to announce that we have recently published teaching resources for school children with a slant towards dam engineering. We also sponsor students, through ‘Arkwright Scholarships’, which are awarded to high-calibre 16 year old students to support them through college (http://www.arkwright.org.uk/).
The BDS Young Professionals (YP) group are now becoming very active, with over 100 members this year. Amongst other initiatives, they are developing a ‘Smart Mentoring Scheme’, which will pair YPs with Panel Engineers to assist them with their training and encourage them to apply to become a Supervising Engineer.
Women in dam engineering
There is much in the media about encouraging women into civil engineering generally, and I believe it is essential to keep this on the agenda. We need to keep talking about it and keep challenging our decisions, from selecting women to speak at events to showing photos of women on our websites and in our brochures, to provide role models and demonstrate this is a workplace for women. I am encouraged by the changes I can see happening, and I believe that by being aware of our unconscious bias and listening to the younger dam professionals, the balance will continue to improve and soon women in dam engineering will be the norm.
I am certain that the BDS will have another female Chair in the next few years and I sincerely hope to see this happening more within other ICOLD countries. The BDS and the wider ICOLD ‘family’ will need to continue to adapt to meet the changing needs of our members and the industry. This transformation is essential, if we are to attract and develop the next generation of dam professionals, who will maintain the safety of our ageing stock of dams in the future; this is an exciting time for dam engineering for all.