Women in engineering: Michelle McDowell, MBE FREng

Michelle McDowell MBE FREng (BSc 1984, Hon DEng 2012), studied Civil Engineering at the University of Bristol. When she graduated she became a structural engineer. As her career progressed she has led many high-profile and award-winning projects, including the refurbishment of the Royal Albert Hall. In 2011 Michelle was awarded an MBE for services to the construction industry and she is now the Chair of Civil and Structural Engineering at BDP. We spoke to her on International Women in Engineering Day 2018.

Tell us about a woman you think more people should know about.

If you are lacking inspiration, take a look at Helen Keller. Meningitis as a baby left her blind and deaf. In spite of this, she not only mastered the English language, but learned to communicate in French, German and Latin. At a time when Harvard wouldn’t admit women, she attended its ‘annex’, Radcliffe College. She went on to become a political activist, a vocal socialist and she marched in women’s suffrage parades. She certainly makes you think twice about complaining! 

We’ve come a long way in 100 years. What do you want to see changed next? 

I would like to see employers positively embrace flexible working, really embrace it. As someone who works flexibly, I think it’s a brilliant deal for employers who get excellent value for money combined with company loyalty. Of course, I benefit too from spending more time with my young children.  

What every-day act would you encourage feminists to take? 

Refuse to put up with unacceptable behaviours – brace yourself if necessary and challenge them. Make the perpetrators feel uncomfortable. They are in the wrong, not you. 

What do you love about being an Engineer? 

I love the tangible results of a very creative process – buildings which emerge from sketches and models, if well designed, can transform lives. One of my most inspiring moments was to return to a school I had designed and for the head teacher to point out a student who formerly played truant but who now not only attended but stayed on after school to do homework. 

Read more from our women in engineering. 

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