Creating change for women working in male dominated industries: Ailie MacAdam, President at Bechtel Corporation

Ailie MacAdam is a walking billboard for women and girls within the engineering industry. Showcasing accolades and achievements that continue to stretch throughout her career. Engineering runs through her family tree, so you may think she was destined to follow in her family’s footsteps. But despite Ailie’s Father and God Father both being engineers, she hadn’t always set her eyes on this career choice. So, how did she find her way to becoming a Director on the board for one of the biggest construction companies in the world?

I recently spent time talking to Ailie to find out more about how her incredible career in engineering started, and what helped get her to the top as a woman in a male dominated industry. Finding out her thoughts on unconscious bias, what she thinks individuals and employers can do to help accelerate gender diversity, and her opinion on social value as a STEM ambassador.

Supporting the need for female representation, Ailie begun by telling me “you can’t be what you can’t see, and the more I can give to help reflect the visibility of potential career paths and stories the better.”  As a child Ailie had representation from her father of the potential career paths within engineering, so it surprised me that engineering wasn’t her first career choice. Explaining “I originally wanted to be a doctor and do medicine, but luckily I’d done awfully in my Physic A level exam so I had to look at what else I could do with the skills I had.” After spending a few weeks with her God Father on a refinery in Southampton Ailie was hooked. “I liked the thought of taking  a raw material and then, with unit steps of either physical or chemical processing, coming out with a product at the end that was useful for people.”

The relevance of her Father being an engineer was that there was no bias. It didn’t matter that she was a girl. Ailie told me “If parents don’t have an informed understanding, visibility or awareness of how terrific a career in engineering can be, then it can influence their children’s career selection.”

Ailie’s humble nature was portrayed throughout our conversation explaining that she never felt particularly ambitious (but she hates to lose!), making it clear that her biggest goal is always to add value and do the best she can, “if I don’t feel like I am doing that, then I will go and create another challenge.”

But with great challenges comes great obstacles. “Both men and women have moments of crisis of confidence. From the most senior employee to incoming graduates. My advice would be to just remember that, it is normal”. In these situations, Ailie says we must recognise when this is happening and know there is always a way through it. Always remember that the sun will come up tomorrow. Whilst it feels at the time that it is the biggest thing today, you can only do your best. As long as you know that, that is all you can do, and the sun will always come up tomorrow”.

Since Ailie first began her career, she has seen the industry change dramatically. Whilst it is more inclusive, there is still a large gender gap that needs accelerating. When working on Crossrail Ailie initiated a very intentional decision to increase the number of women working on the project. With a team of roughly 600 people, it was recognised that more diversity would mean better performance. High potential, diverse female candidates were identified. Looking at potential over experience. Identifying and prioritising strengths such as energy levels, approach, collaboration, and teamwork skills as well as background. Women weren’t penalised for not having 10-15 years’ experience. “The amount of diverse people that came out of Crossrail was fantastic, and women blossomed.”  Ailie begun to corelate data that evidenced the value of diverse teams bringing more innovation, productivity and held better success rates.

A challenge we face as an industry is to not only provide women with opportunities but to enable women to maintain a career. Data shows the number of women leaving roles increases when in their 30’s, often due to caring commitments. In Australia and Chile, Bechtel run the 10-week STEM returners programme that helps encourage those who have been out of work. Giving them time to understand the company, the role, and re acclimatise to work again. Whilst the programme is for both men and women, it is mostly taken up by women who join with common fears and concerns. It was explained that these confidence issues soon begin to fade and as times passes, and you see the confidence build. “It’s great job satisfaction.”

With companies supporting both men and women and confronting and challenging unconscious bias in the workplace, we also need to consider future generations. I was interested to hear Ailie’s thoughts as a STEM ambassador herself, whether she felt construction companies should hold more onus and responsibility amongst a local community to help reflect representation amongst their teams and do more with schools to help reach younger audiences?

“Absolutely right, the difference social value activity gives you is that the engagement with schools and children allows them to tangibly see the profession, representation, and careers available. There is no replacement for seeing it with your own eyes.”

Ailie continued to explain how social value has a lot more recognition now. Sharing an example of a Bechtel scheme in America, one of the first activities undertaken was to understand the challenges within the local communities. “By understanding the community and what makes it beat is really important. The more you understand the bigger the impact you can have as a project. Social value not only adds value to a community but is motivating for our teams too. Supporting local people helps keep real talent to do a job they feel motivated to do.”

With so much potential when it comes to gender diversity, Ailie spoke about setting do-able and intentional targets, setting targets helps focus the mind on what we need to do differently to achieve the targets – iterating around the status quo won’t get us there –  You can then begin to hold yourself and others accountable to progress the actions and interventions required to achieve the targets. In Saudi Arabia, Bechtel has unleashed some incredible female talent whereby over 30% of their employees are women. “They are nailing it. They have an unleashed energy, motivation and approach and they want to prove themselves. It’s fantastic to see and it’s uplifting the entire workforce”.

This generation of new ideas does ignite some challenges. As we begin to permanently work in a more digital working space, engaging with colleagues might not be the same as it once was. Whilst it does mean we aren’t restricted by location, Ailie highlighted “we are all struggling to know what the right balance is. Flexibility is so important to people, but we also need person to person contact too. Partly because of the role and partly because of culture building. If we want to stop unconscious bias that needs to come from face-to-face interaction. With people being integrated and mixed.”

It was refreshing and motivating speaking with Ailie, and as a last final question I wanted to know if you could give your 16 year old self one piece of advice what would it be, she replied “don’t revise for that physics exam, because otherwise I would be in medicine and not engineering and I love engineering.”