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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Milly Henneyake featured

Inspirational Woman: Milly Henneyake | Civil Engineer, Arup

Milly Henneyake
Photo: Harry Parvin

Milly wanted to do a job that would help people and have an impact on the world, so decided to be an engineer.

Now she works as a civil engineer, making people safe from flooding. She has worked with charities in projects around the world. In South America, Milly improved the design for temporary housing so that houses could be built safely and quickly by small groups of people. In Kenya, she worked with Engineers Without Borders to install plumbing and drainage into communities that had none.

She is now a civil engineer for Arup, where she builds structures to make people safe from flooding. Milly draws designs and works with other experts to manage flood risks. She works with nature, from rivers and lakes, to trees protecting riverbanks. Milly works to make sure what she builds is sustainable, thinking about the environment and reducing the impact on ecology. Her work keeps people safe after large storms.

Milly is a part of This is Engineering Day, a day created by the Royal Academy of Engineering to celebrate the world-shaping engineering that exists all around us but often go unnoticed, as well as the engineers who make this possible. As part of This is Engineering Day, the Royal Academy of Engineering has announced plans to create a new virtual museum named The Museum of Engineering Innovation, which can be accessed through QR Codes dotted around the country as well as by visiting Google Arts and Culture. To view the first collection of exhibits, which include Jonnie Peacock’s running blade, visit https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/museum-of-engineering-innovation. #BeTheDifference

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

I did a general engineering degree at the University of Cambridge and graduated with a master’s in civil and environmental engineering. Throughout university I was involved with Engineers Without UK and the university chapter, which piqued my interest in international development and humanitarian aid and helped shape my attitude to engineering. I was fortunate to be able to do a wide range of internships and voluntary projects throughout my years at university.

I now work at Arup as a civil engineer with a focus on water and cities. At the start of my career spent three years on site in a supervision role for the construction of Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme, which helps to protect the city centre of Leeds from flooding.  Since then I’ve been doing a lot of design work with multidisciplinary teams.  A couple of years ago I did a voluntary Engineers Without Borders UK placement with Kounkuey Design Initiative in Nairobi, Kenya.  I learned a lot and really enjoyed working with the team out there. I am still trying to figure out how I want to develop my career.

I am is part of This is Engineering Day on 4 November 2020, a day dedicated to celebrating engineers and engineering. Created by the Royal Academy of Engineering, This is Engineering Day 2020 showcases the feats of engineering that exist all around us and that make a difference to our everyday lives and futures, but often go unnoticed, as well as the engineers behind them.  For further information visit  www.thisisengineering.org.uk or follow #BeTheDifference.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not as much as I would like to!

I have taken the time to sit down and consider my options at key turning points.  For example, I didn’t apply for graduate jobs in my final year of university and instead I looked for interesting international opportunities and ended up working in Freetown, Sierra Leone with AIP for a couple of months, which was great!  I also took the time to talk to people, where I either admired them or was interested in aspects of their career to help me decide what I should do.

I’m trying to do that to a lesser extent now every year although the time flies by so quickly that I don’t always manage to.  But I also believe that it’s good to have flexibility in your plans instead of setting everything in stone.

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

Yes definitely, both small and large.  Some of it has been about me learning how to assert myself and not always being a people-pleaser in the workplace.  It’s taken me a long time to accept it, but it’s good to be a bit selfish when making career related decisions.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I think what I’m happiest about is the variety of projects, industries and work that I’ve been involved in over my career.

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

I think one of the main reasons is being prepared to say yes to new things and projects- this has enabled me to get involved in some very cool projects!  I love the diversity and having new challenges.

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

Stand up for yourself, ask for training opportunities, apply for any openings that interest you.

Don’t be scared to say I don’t know and to ask questions when you need to.

Taking the time to build relationships with colleagues and outside of the firm is important.  Knowing the limits of your knowledge and abilities and being able to ask people who have more expertise speeds up the process and is a great way to build up your knowledge base.  In addition, being able to connect people who have similar interests or who can help each other can help you.  People skills are important in any job.

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

Speaking of the industry that I’m familiar with, the engineering and construction industry, I think there are still a lot of barriers from the obvious disparity of wages and the fact that most senior leadership positions are held by white men.

I also believe that the culture can sometimes be very macho, and women can feel pressured to adapt to the culture instead of trying to change it.  Find role models whom you admire.  Also speak honestly with peers- find the people who will have your back and who will support you in standing up for yourself and building up your confidence.

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

The macho culture can hold back both men and women.  Everyone deserves to have carrier breaks or more balanced working hours if they so desire.  A more inclusive and accepting environment will help everyone progress, particularly women.

Having leaders, especially more women, with a good work life balance will inspire more women.

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?

I think we need to start at the very beginning.  Over the years I have spent a lot of time running workshops and talking to students of all age groups.  I’ve noticed young girls being put off by the idea of technology and STEM due to lack of confidence when first introduced to a task.  But once they actually start doing it, they realise that they can excel and a lot of times I’ve noticed that they outperform the boys.  We need to give young girls the confidence to help them believe that STEM subjects and careers are valid choices for any gender.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Networking events are great to meet others in similar fields.

I think it’s important to be reflective and try to understand what areas you want to develop.  Whether it’s your self-confidence, technical knowledge or people skills and then follow up on that whether it’s books, podcasts, events etc.


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