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The changing perception of Civil Engineering

  • Cherry

When Cherry Chadha started her Civil Engineering degree at Unitec, she was one of only a handful of women in her classes. Today, as a Project Manager for Waka Kotahi, she’s excited to see more women entering the industry than ever before.

Cherry moved from India to join her sister in New Zealand in 2013. Having already completed 2 years of a biotechnology engineering degree in Delhi, she says she knew she wanted to continue with some form of engineering.

Having grown up and studied in the large city of Delhi, Cherry didn’t find the move to New Zealand to be too much of a cultural shock, but says the way of learning was different to what she was accustomed to.

“In India there’s more of a theory focus, while studying at Unitec is more practical and ‘hands-on’. You’re really left on your own - to think, to brainstorm, to come up with ideas. You’re given a brief, but how you shape it is up to you. That was something new for me, but I really enjoyed the approach.”

Cherry says Unitec’s supportive environment helped her settle into her new degree, and she was never made to feel uncomfortable as one of only a few females in the Bachelor of Engineering Technology (Civil) programme at the time.

“Civil Engineering wasn’t very popular with women in 2014 - in fact, in some of my classes, I was the only female, which was a bit of a shock having come from a biotechnology degree where the males were outnumbered! But I never felt I had any less opportunities as a female. Whatever your gender, it’s really up to you where you want to take your degree. If you want to make something of yourself and you’re up for the work, you can get all the support you need.”

Moving into the industry  

Cherry’s first job after graduating was as a trainee site engineer for a sub-division development company - a role she got through Unitec’s Connect Events. She says finding her feet wasn’t easy, but it came down to having confidence in herself. 

“When I started, I was the only graduate female engineer on board. I was even asked in my interview whether I thought I was up for the task, being the only female on site. My answer was ‘look - I’m the only female here, that means something. I’ve come this far - I can do it’. But leaving my ‘safe space’ at Unitec and heading out into the field was daunting. You’re essentially a ‘boss’ on site - I had more experienced guys asking questions I didn’t feel I could answer. I certainly felt nervous and intimidated initially. 

“But, at the end of the day, I realised it was all in my head. I was simply inexperienced at the time - my gender didn’t matter. I just had to listen, to ask questions, ask their opinion, then everything started falling into place. It’s all about being confident in your ability.”

After eight months, Cherry moved to Auckland Transport as a graduate engineer, then became a project manager. Today, she’s a project manager for Waka Kotahi, the New Zealand Transport Agency, working with contractors, clients, consultants and subconsultants to lead roading projects from start to finish. 

“Waka Kotahi looks at the network and the demand, and works out what’s needed - whether it’s a state highway or a cycling connection. Our role is to take that mandate from its first stages to design and build. I get to work with a wide range of people and use a raft of skills outside of engineering. In fact, I’d say 25-30% of my tasks are engineering related, the rest involve people skills, working with communities and local boards, dealing with political pressures, as well as timelines, budgeting and variations. 

“The good thing is that these were all things we covered at Unitec. You don’t just learn mathematics or mechanics - Unitec looks at the real life skills you’ll need in your job and makes sure you’re equipped with them.”

Women in Civil Engineering

Right now, the Civil Engineering industry in New Zealand is seeing more female candidates than ever before. Cherry tutors part time at Unitec and says she was really encouraged by the number of females in one of her recent classes. 

“It’s great to see more women coming through. Traditionally, Civil Engineering has been seen as a ‘male field’, but it’s simply a perception. It’s an industry that has so much to offer females - and we have so much to offer in return. I believe we tend to be more naturally empathetic, which is an important quality to have as a project manager when you’re dealing with a lot of different people. Stepping outside the figures, timelines and costs and simply checking how the wider team are doing can have a really positive impact on a project.

“What I really love about Civil Engineering is that you get to see the outcome of your work and how it impacts people. I project managed a cycleway on Victoria Street recently, and now I can see people using it - it’s very rewarding. Plus, it’s one industry that isn’t going anywhere - construction is booming in New Zealand!”

Cherry is currently studying a Masters in Transportation Engineering at University of Auckland, and hopes to one day move into a more strategic role - looking at overall transportation networks rather than individual projects. For students wanting to get into the industry, she says networking is key.

“The networks you create at Unitec and in your roles are so important. It’s a very small industry and you’re bound to cross paths with people again, so making a good impression is important. Engineering New Zealand runs a lot of programmes for students, including one that focuses on encouraging females into the industry. My advice is to get out there, go to events, talk to people: it’s all an opportunity to learn and create connections.”

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