Roma Agrawal
Ben Pipe Photography

Roma Agrawal has been a celebrated structural engineer for the past 15 years. Throughout her career, she has designed bridges, skyscrapers and sculptures with signature architects.

She is also one of the masterminds behind The Shard, having spent six years working on the project, designing the foundations and the ‘Spire’.

In addition to winning industry awards, Roma’s career has been extensively featured in the media, including on BBC World NewsBBC Daily PoliticsTEDxThe Evening Standard, The Sunday Times, Guardian, The Telegraph, Independent, Cosmopolitan and Stylist Magazines, and documentaries. She was the only woman featured on Channel 4’s documentary on the Shard, ‘The Tallest Tower’ and was part of M&S’s ‘Leading Ladies’ campaign 2014, as well as being described as a top woman tweeter by the Guardian.

Outside of the construction field , Roma promotes STEM careers to young people and particularly to under-represented groups such as women. She is part of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering’s Create the Trophy competition judging panel and as part of that carries out a great deal of work in schools, inspiring young people to choose engineering as a career path.  The recently launched competition is open to young people aged between 14 and 24 all around the world. They are inviting budding designers to construct innovative trophies that capture the essence, creativity, and wonder of engineering. Enter before the 21st December to be in with a chance of winning! 

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your current role

I’m a structural engineer by profession and I spent 15 years working in the construction industry. I’ve worked on a number of big projects, such as the Shard and I also promote STEM engineering and scientific careers to young people, particularly under-represented groups such as women.

You could say I’ve had two parallel careers – the engineering side and then the side where I focus on writing and media. So far, I’ve published 1 book with two more in the works, and am currently a Creative Advisor for Festival 22.

But at the moment, for the first time in 15 years really, I am self-employed which is great as now get to be my own boss.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Well, there are lots of different answers to this question, but I have to say, initially no.

I didn’t know until I was partway through my undergraduate degree in physics that I wanted to be an engineer. I did my undergraduate degree, then a masters in structural engineering and then went straight into work. A year or two in, I actually sat down and thought about my career. I planned how I wanted to get my chartership, and the teams I wanted to work with.

Then things progressed and didn’t really follow a strict plan. Thanks to my work on the Shard, I ended up with two sides to my career running in parallel – the engineer and communicating engineering through writing and media.

Then I had a baby and, of course, we were hit by the pandemic we’re all living through. Currently I’ve stepped back and taken some time off to pursue the writing side of my career and more media opportunities.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

The short answer is – yes, many and all very different.

Firstly, there’s the fact I come from a minority background.  I was lucky that engineering is considered a prestigious career in India so I was aware I could do it, but when I moved to the UK, I found it strange that no one ever suggested it to me as a career, so I studied physics instead.

I was first exposed to it though a summer job when I was a teenager and that made me take stock and think: “this is something I can actually do”. But I almost didn’t end up in this career.

Being a woman in a largely male dominated industry was also something I found challenging. My career began back in 2005. This was the era when construction workers still had pin-up pictures of women plastered all over the cabins on site and, in meetings, I was more often than not the only women in the room. It took time, but I slowly developed the confidence to speak up.

I’ve also found that as I’ve received attention for my media and writing work, some former colleagues have found this difficult to deal with and I’ve experienced some poor behaviours as a result.

My biggest challenge at the moment is figuring out what my next move is going to be! Of course there is my engineering career, but there are also many other avenues I am keen to pursue and explore.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Throughout my career, one of the things that has really stuck with me is the moment when I attended the opening of a new building at a primary school in Birmingham, the Ark Chamberlain Primary Academy, where they had actually named a building after me – the Agrawal Building. The students voted and selected to name the building after me for my public speaking work and my engagement with young people. I was incredibly touched and flattered and it re-instilled in me my drive to inspire both young people and people of minority backgrounds.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

For me, I think the most important thing is communication – it’s an incredibly important skill.

When you work in a field like engineering where your work is quite complex, almost a different language, it’s so important to be able to communicate the complex ideas. How do you communicate with architects and project managers, for example?

You need to be able to explain technical theories when lecturing, making it simple enough for people to understand. For me, it’s also really critical that you really understand your audience. I always think – why are these people here? Why have they come to hear me speak? And then I adapt my lecture accordingly.

I have been lucky enough to live in many different regions – India, the Middle East, the US and now the UK. I think the art of communication is something I’ve managed to refine whilst navigating through my different life experiences. It is this concept of communication that eventually led to me writing my first book.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

So as I’ve already explored at great length – communication is really key, but another essential skill is the ability to build strong relationships. When you think about it, engineering and tech are all very collaborative industries so, essentially, the better relationships you have – the better your career. It always feels a little uncomfortable at first going to these networking events but the advice you can gain from others is invaluable. The more you can put yourself out there and make your name well known, the more successful you’ll be. Start doing things like having virtual coffee meet ups and getting advice from people outside of you sector. It really is so important.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes, definitely.

What I am now focusing on is exploring how the barriers themselves can be removed – rather than women always having to navigate around those barriers.

We need to create the most welcoming, inclusive working culture possible and stop focusing on what women can do to break barriers, but what they can do to dismantle them. These changes need to come from the top, the executive boards, CEOs and so on. These senior people need to model the behaviours they think are acceptable and show their employees what the values of the organisation are.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

People talk about flexible working – yes that’s important, not only for women but for everyone. We need to cultivate workplace cultures where employees can be themselves without conforming to a specific model. More often than not, we feel we have to behave a certain way as leadership behave in this way. What we need is a for companies to demonstrate that they can create an environment where everyone can succeed just by being themselves and without having to change who they are. Be yourself and be authentic – spend your energy trying to succeed, over trying to change yourself.

You know, I was talking about challenges earlier and one of my more personal challenges has been my experience with IVF. The only way I was really able to get through that was due to the support of my employer at the time. They gave me flexibility for fertility treatment which was invaluable to me and allowed me to go through the life changing process to have my child. These things are so important, and I really believe everyone should be given time off for difficult life events, like fertility treatment, should they need it. It’s things like this that make the world of difference to our careers and that are absolutely necessary.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

My greatest wish would be to make all people in the tech industry realise and accept, with complete humility, that everyone’s stories are different. We don’t all come from the same starting point and it’s more important now than ever that we embrace all backgrounds. Once you understand that, you can ensure everyone can be included and succeed.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Wow this is a tough one – there are so many! I think my top one would have to be 99% Invisible. This goes back to the sheer importance of communication – the storytelling is just great. They manage to explain complex engineering and design topics and do an amazing job of making it engaging for everyone. Why Aren’t You a Doctor Yet is another of my favourites. It’s hosted by people of colour and does a fantastic job of combining tech with comedy. Of course there is always my own, Building Stories, but I am biased on that! The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering also has an excellent one called Create the Future.

In terms of books – my own of course!

In terms of conferences I tend to focus on construction-based ones like UK Construction Week and UK Build. When it comes to networking, a great one is the Stemettes, an award-winning social enterprise working across the UK & Ireland to inspire and support young women into STEM. The founder Anne Marie also hosts the Evening Standard’s fantastic Women Tech Charge podcast.

Tell us about your work with the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, what it is firstly, and why you find it so inspiring

The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (QEPrize) is the world’s number one engineering accolade. It’s a £1m prize and it celebrates engineers from a wider variety of sectors and aims to inspire young people to consider engineering as a career choice – that’s where I come in!

I love my work with the QEPrize. I do a lot of work in schools, encouraging young children to pursue careers in engineering and science and I find it completely rewarding. One of the things I love most about it is, when you work with young people who haven’t started working, the kind of creativity they display is really unparalleled. Children don’t see the obstacles we as adults see. They don’t feel restrictions or worry about the practicality of something. This sense of freedom allows for weird and wonderful ideas to come into the mix which I really revel in – this is why things like the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering are just so important. Children need to see that they can harness their creativity at a young age and make this into a career.

Incidentally, the QEPrize has also launched their Create the Trophy Competition. It’s now open to young people aged between 14 and 24 all around the world and invites budding designers to construct innovative trophies that capture the essence, creativity, and wonder of engineering. The competition close on 21st December so I encourage everyone to take part and submit their entries!

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