‘Engineering should be a calling, not just a job’

“I like the construction industry, because we ‘build’ – whether it is a building, bridge, power station, telecom tower, refinery or treatment plant. We create infrastructure for the betterment of society, which will exist for decades and bear testimony to our talent and ingenuity,” says Gayatri Ramachandran, manager of engineering for India water business at Black & Veatch.

“This creation of something significant from nothing excites me and provides me with a reason to wake up every morning and give my best at work,” she enthuses.

“I also like the fact that the industry has evolved so much over the years, adapting to transformative technologies including digitalisation, automation and artificial intelligence (AI). Increased focus on sustainable solutions has driven innovations and made the engineering and construction space exciting.”

Based in Mumbai, Gayatri and her team provide engineering design support for Black & Veatch offices in the US, Canada, UK, Singapore and Chile  “We also selectively bid for professional service projects in India and manage their execution. Over the years, we have had the opportunity to work with multiple public sector clients on various water and wastewater treatment projects.”

A challenging journey to the top

Gayatri’s decision to become an engineer goes way back to her school days. “I finished high school in the early 1980s when most girls opted for the commerce or science streams that would lead to a banking or teaching job, if they chose to enter the workforce. High performing boys preferred engineering or medicine, which guaranteed well-paid jobs and opportunities to rise in life.

“I was the star performer in my family, yet I was encouraged to take the safe path of an undergraduate degree followed by marriage.”

Gayatri wanted more in life.

She was accepted into both engineering and medical colleges but decided to pursue a career in engineering, which had limited women’s representation at the time and was also perceived as a “more challenging” field for women.

“I graduated with honours and joined an engineering consultancy in Mumbai. Although I had other opportunities, I loved what I was doing, and the engineering and construction industry was where I could thrive best. So, I stayed on.”

But it was the start of a challenging journey for Gayatri, as she joined the industry at a time when it was deemed ‘a man’s world’ - with little support available for women.

“For example, I would often visit power stations and job sites as part of my design role and sometimes for testing and commissioning activities. Most of these sites did not have female restrooms on their premises since female visitors were very rare.

“Women were also poorly represented in all technical domains especially at construction sites, because physical hard work in outdoor environments and dealing with male dominated labour were posed as challenges.”

“Municipal clients in India were wary of dealing with female engineers,” she adds. “I had to work very hard to win their trust. In the end, my perseverance paid off and the same clients became my advocates. I also gained a good reputation among suppliers and contractors during the execution of various projects.”

In terms of career guidance, Gayatri says that in her early days, she had a lack of mentorship and lack of good opportunities, which slowed down her technical growth. “I had to work twice as hard to prove myself equal to my male peers. There was also a lack of flexibility in the job while raising a family. There were many occasions when I questioned my ability to pursue this demanding career.”

Her difficulties, though, made her even more resilient. “I learnt, made mistakes, picked myself up, learnt some more and developed myself in both technical and non-technical aspects.”

Gayatri joined Black & Veatch in 2012 and performed different roles in the water business. It was one of her projects in 2016 that finally paved the way for a leadership role at the company. “I was tasked to lead electrical engineering activities for an oil and gas project in India, as part of an EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) contract. This was an unfamiliar territory for me, but I managed to lead the team effectively and meet all expectations successfully.”

‘We need more women in leadership roles’

After three decades of being an engineer, she is still enjoying her role. “I do not face a lot of challenges now, because Black & Veatch provides a positive environment where everyone can thrive, and gender is not a barrier. Also, being in a leadership position, I am not subjected to the challenges that women at working levels may face.”

This year, Black & Veatch achieved a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s 2021 Corporate Equality Index (CEI) for the third consecutive year, Gayatri shares. In 2020, Forbes listed Black & Veatch among Best Employers for Diversity, recognising the company’s commitment to enabling a diverse and inclusive workforce. “I am very proud of Black & Veatch’s commitment to create a more diverse, inclusive and equitable work environment for our employees.”

As a leader, Gayatri is determined to create opportunities for young engineers to flourish and achieve their potential.

“I’ve made a promise to myself that I would be a good mentor and provide young engineers the support that I was once deprived of. In my current role, I have implemented a mentor-mentee platform to actively develop our young talent pool.”

She observes that acceptance of female engineers in offices has increased multifold over the last two decades. “Organisations in the engineering and construction industry are increasingly working towards removing gender barriers, hiring more women in technical roles, and providing a more welcoming environment for them.

“The most visible change is women functioning successfully as project managers, construction managers and safety managers, as well as many others in leadership roles.”

“Women can bring to the table diverse thinking and differing perspectives which, in my opinion, can significantly improve the quality of decisions,” Gayatri explains. “Women have a higher emotional quotient and higher levels of empathy, which can be valuable when organisations are making decisions that could impact a large section of the workforce.

“Women are also adept at multi-tasking so we can handle more than one priority at a time - and that is extremely valuable. Plus, women are very thorough and detail-oriented, making us ideal to be part of engineering and construction.”

“Of course, the journey is far from over and we still have work to do,“ she acknowledges. “We need more women at leadership levels, where they can be influencers. We also need to encourage young school girls to take up engineering studies and offer exciting career opportunities for them in the construction industry.”

To the female engineers of tomorrow, Gayatri says, “Identify what excites you and choose a career where you feel motivated. Engineering should be a calling, not just a job. This industry can provide significant opportunities for women and it is up to you to explore your potential.

“Be active in professional bodies, so you can be visible and make your voice heard. Do not be satisfied in being just an engineer, aim to be a change leader.

“Lastly, you can do it, and you can do it well!”

Photos courtesy of Gayatri Ramachandran