Ayo Sokale

Inspirational Woman: Ayo Sokale | Deputy Mayor of Reading, Civil Engineer & Advocate for Women in STEM

Ayo SokaleI am a chartered civil engineer working in Flood and Coastal Risk Management.

I got here through the academic route of A levels and undertaking a master’s degree in civil and Coastal Engineering. I was keen after university to do something that mattered. So, I joined the Environment Agency on their Graduate training agreement where I also did secondments to get the experience I needed to sit my professional qualification, which I passed in three years.

The project I worked in during that period, gave me a wealth of experience. The Tull Way Flood Alleviation Scheme (FAS) arose following the widespread surface water flooding that affect over 1100 homes back in July 2007. The impacts were devastating causing economic loss and hardship to local people and business. I was the site supervisor on the project and was responsible for recording key information such as the weather on site, the activity on site, progress on site, plant and labour return, construction material, and taking progress photographs in the site diary. I would inspect the result of site tests, check for defects, and manage quality control and the health and safety of operatives by checking that they had complied with the method statement provided for the works. My favourite part of the job was talking to the public, engaging with them on the council blog site, opening the site to interested future engineers and knowing the work would make such a difference to people’s lives.

Following heavy overnight rain on the 14th January 2020 which accompanied Storm Brendan the Tull Way flood defence reservoir, completed in 2018, impounded over two metres depth of flood water and was effective in protecting numerous properties in the Florence Gardens and Bowling Green Road area of Thatcham from flooding.

This is most rewarding part of my Job. Being an engineer is part of how I attempt to live a purpose-driven life. But my favourite part of my job is achieving outcomes for local communities – it’s such a great feeling when a project has, for example, protected families from flooding.

I am currently working on two projects, which I have managed from their concept and I looked forward to seeing them delivered on site*, achieving awesome outcomes.

I am also the Deputy Mayor of Reading, a keynote speaker (on environment, sustainability, STEM and neurodiversity) and I am a science presenter on BBC Bitesize.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I have always wanted to be a Civil Engineer because Civil Engineers have the tools to make the world better and have a long-lasting impact on it.

I used to have an overall career strategy and rolling 10-year look-ahead programme, but with time, growth, and greater understanding of myself I have adopted a more relaxed approach where I know my area of competence, areas to develop, personal values, areas of interest and I simply decision that align with these and the vision I have for my life. This leaves me open to taking opportunities and gives me freedom to be keep expanding, evolving, and growing. This approach allows for huge growth and leveraging lessons from one area of your life to another.

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

Of course, challenge is par to the course. At the start of working career, I had to find accommodation in a professional area in my new town and was surprised to find in a professional house-share the agent telling me the landlord didn’t take people like me. I assumed he meant students and clarified that I was a professional and met the criteria, but I was shocked to hear it was due to my race. This was the first time in a while; I had to see myself as others might, through the prism of race.

I tell this story years on because I realise the impact this had on bringing my authentic self to work. I lost my voice and was less outgoing and more accepting of discrimination.

This was further compounded, by my autism – I have an ASD diagnosis and this caused me to doubt myself and think I had a situation.

Eventually, I realised I should never accept any discrimination, or laugh at jokes that make me uncomfortable to maintain the status quo. Instead, I challenge and this is how I maintain my personal power. Nobody can stop me from standing up and using my voice – so you see, my challenges became an opportunity to become stronger and more resilient.

Ayo Sokale speaking as deputy mayor

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Signing off my training agreement in two and a half years and achieving chartership in three years. I did all of this whilst maintaining my commitment in the community and campaigning and getting elected as a councillor. It showed me that I can do anything that I set my mind on.

I was selected by the Institute of Civil Engineers as a future leader. This gave me the opportunity to work on a report by the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) into the Grenfell disaster that will help engineers and wider society improve building construction to ensure that a disaster like that never happens again.

You’ve had some incredible career changes – from beauty queen to Civil Engineer – do you have any advice for those looking to switch careers?

I have always aspired to be useful and make a difference. This has meant working to gain a range of skills. Beauty Pageants were huge part of my development. I was a finalist for Miss Galaxy England, Miss Earth and Miss Great Britain, and held the titles Miss Plymouth, Miss Sussex and Miss East Sussex. These experiences helped me build a platform to support my charity work where I founded an annual charity event to raise funds for Derriford Hospital’s Children’s Cancer Service (DCCS), supported other charities, such as Sands, Rainbow Hospice, British Heart Foundation, RSPCA and Prospect Hospice, by running a half marathon, running several boot camps, organising fashion shows and singing in a harmony group and volunteering at the homeless shelter. I also become a better communicator and a more well-rounded engineer. There were my first forays into running campaigns, which also supported me getting elected as a councillor.

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

I read that gender biases are already consolidated in primary school and this means that many girls already believe that careers in STEM are not for them. I love going into schools to do STEM outreach and bust these myths. STEM is for anyone who is interested.

What more can be done to encourage girls and women into STEM?

I think STEM outreach is important and so is seeing more and more representation.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I would advise getting involved, getting a range of experience as this helps you to determine where you interest, and strengths lie. These two things make for a successful career.

I think getting a mentor is important too and getting involved in your professional bodies is very helpful – join committees, network with other professional and attend CPD events. This is a great starting point.

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