Vanessa Quansah

At the age of 29, Vanessa Quansah is a Senior Civil & Structural Engineer at global developer and construction company Lendlease.

Studying Civil Engineering at Surrey University, Vanessa went on to work for Swanton Consulting, an in-house design temporary works specialist consultancy for a demolition company. In just four years, she was promoted from a graduate engineer to a Senior Engineer, and then joined Lendlease as Senior Civil & Structural Engineer.

Doing her bit to promote females working in a very male-dominated industry, she is a STEM ambassador, regularly visiting schools to promote engineering to young females and mentor students. In addition she is an Associate Member of the Institute of Demolition Engineers (one of approximately 10 females of 400+ members), a Chartered Member with the Intuition of Civil Engineers (ICE) and was also a finalist of the WICE Best Young Woman Engineer 2017.

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

My name is Vanessa Quansah, I’m 29 years old and was born and raised in inner city London. My engineering journey began at Surrey University where I studied Civil Engineering. I hadn’t always wanted to work in engineering – I initially wanted to be a hairdresser – but my friend, who I met during an opportunity to study in the Netherlands, introduced me to the industry and I’ve never looked back since. I graduated with an MEng in 2012 and went on to work for Swanton Consulting, a temporary works design consultancy for a demolition company. After almost four years, I went from Graduate Engineer to Senior Engineer before joining Lendlease in 2016 as Senior Civil and Structural Engineer. In my current role I focus on designing and approving temporary works. Temporary works is a specialist branch of civil engineering, which provides safe access, protection or support during construction or demolition. Most people recognise this as scaffolding and site fencing, but it’s much more than that! I’ve been involved in projects that have included everything from designing retaining walls for a 12m deep basement excavation on a site containing unexploded bombs; to having to hydraulically lift an entire 20-storey building to install bearings after the building was already in place.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Apart from working towards my industry qualifications, I did not have a particular plan. Early on, however, I knew that designing temporary works was something I wanted to continue. As a result, I set out to take on challenging projects so that I could propel my experience and learn quickly so that I can work towards being an influential person within the industry.

Have you faced any particular challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

Being a female in a male dominated industry, I sometimes feel quite conspicuous and people question what I’m doing. This is particularly the case when I’m on a construction or demolition site. This isn’t a negative thing though, as it provides me with the opportunity to open a discussion, talk about what I do, and demonstrate that I have the necessary knowledge, skills and capabilities. This job involves a lot of thinking on your feet to develop a quick, but safe and cost-effective solution, which for me is what I find most exciting in the job. For instance, I worked on a project where an 18th century brick wall had to be retained during the demolition of the remaining the structure, but after working on the project for 6-months it suddenly partially collapsed overnight. I had to get to site at 6am to ensure the rest of it remained intact and managed to devise a solution that both the site team and the client were satisfied with. As my experience and confidence in such a technical role has grown over the years, I see that I am becoming the ‘go-to person’ for devising suitable solutions to some very challenging problems.

If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?

Diversity is increasingly high on many agendas. I think it’s important that while still ensuring more females get into senior roles, this is based on merit rather than appearance, who someone knows, and certainly not to just make up the numbers. It has to be based on ability.

I believe that Lendlease has the right balance with this and with numerous initiatives to address issues of gender equality it’s not surprising that it was named one of The Times’ Top 50 Employers for Women, so we’re taking big steps in the right direction.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

As a STEM ambassador I regularly visit schools to promote engineering to young females and mentor students. I provide them with an insight into the industry, and for those who are not particularly interested in engineering, I provide support with exam revision and career advice. In addition, I’m their sounding board to discuss any other issue they may be having, which I believe they find beneficial from an older person who is neither their parent or teacher. Furthermore, as a Chartered Member with the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), I support my peers with their journey into chartership.

I have had mentors over the years who have not only provided me with technical support but also helped me build my confidence by volunteering me for various presentations and industry events. I believe that in technical roles such as this, particularly as a female, mentoring is so important. It’s comforting to know that there are people that support you and want you to do well and are there to talk to when dealing with difficult projects where a much more experienced person can provide guidance.

How would you encourage more women and girls into a career in STEM?

I think the biggest barrier isn’t that women and girls aren’t necessarily interested in STEM, but the fact that they aren’t aware of the career options it presents. As mentioned earlier, I hadn’t personally known about civil engineering let alone considered a career in the industry until my friend told me about it. It’s so important that we work to raise awareness of the industry, and what jobs and career options it offers, encouraging as many people as we can to consider further education options, apprenticeships and the many roles that are available.

Construction in London is a particularly exciting prospect. We’re part of adapting the London landscape, and with that comes a lot of constraints that have to be considered. For instance, I have designed supporting structures that had to sit on top on live tunnels with people walking just 2m below; worked on a method than involved simultaneously constructing upwards while excavating downwards; and once even donned a fireproof suit to inspect a high voltage switchgear space. I never anticipated the sheer variety of this role when I was studying.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I have had the opportunity to work on several high-profile projects, including the refurb of the Imperial War Museum and Tate Modern, and the construction of Victoria Nova, Westminster’s Rathbone Place and the Elephant Park Development. It is really gratifying to say that I have contributed to the built environment around me and helped to develop these iconic buildings. In addition, one of my temporary works design solutions involved supporting a ‘floating façade’ where a single skin 20m high brick wall needed to be supported after the building interior was fully demolished and the ground beneath it was excavated 14m. This design was a finalist for the British Construction Industry Best Temporary Works Award. On more personal achievements, I was a finalist of the WICE Best Young Woman Engineer 2017, and am an Associate Member of the Institute of Demolition Engineers. I am particularly proud of the latter, as I am one of only ten females out of the 400+ members.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Eventually, I would like to be in a leadership position where I can be an influential person within the business and shape how engineering is delivered on our projects. I would also like to have the opportunity to work overseas and hopefully learn from the methods used in other major cities to see how we do things better here. I’m currently working on achieving one more industry qualification, as well as working towards becoming a member on an expert panel which maintains and shapes best practice within the construction industry.