Interview: Roma Agrawal, structural engineer and author of ‘Built’
Image credit: Nick Smith
Roma Agrawal is one of engineering’s rising stars. A successful London-based structural engineer and author of the critically acclaimed book ‘Built’, she is also an advocate for inclusivity in engineering. “If our profession doesn’t reflect our population, then we’re doing something wrong,” she says.
She may have been born in Mumbai and she may well have spent much of her youth in New York, but Roma Agrawal has a deep and abiding affection for London.
Not only does she live there, she is currently helping to build it. Her most visible achievement to date is her work on London’s Shard (the tallest building in western Europe) as a structural engineer, but she’s also author of the book ‘Built’, published earlier this year to wide acclaim. This, not least because it is one of the best popular books on engineering for some time, but also because reviewers found it intrinsically interesting that its author was a woman who was an engineer.
Not only that, because Agrawal is Indian by ethnicity (while being “British by passport”) there was further texture to the story in that she broke the mould of what engineers were supposed to look like in the stereotype of the public imagination.
Today, as well as being an accomplished author, she is an associate director of the multinational engineering company Aecom, which provides design, consulting, construction and management services. In June, she was awarded an MBE for services to engineering. She is a passionate advocate for inclusivity in engineering, a profession that she believes does not reflect the diversity of modern society. Because she thinks it should, she acts as an unofficial ambassador and regularly goes into schools to inspire the next generation of engineers regardless of their gender or ethnicity.
She describes the role of structural engineers in particular as “responsible for making bridges and buildings stand up. That’s the basic premise of what we do. We use maths and physics principles. We have to understand what the forces are acting on a building or a bridge. We work with architects and we work with the people who come up with the big visions. We pull all that together and make it a reality.”
Forging reality out of a creative vision can be a long process that Agrawal outlines with reference to the 95-storey Shard – a project that she was heavily involved with for six years, “but not necessarily on every stage. What generally happens is that somebody who’s essentially got the cash will say that there is a piece of land they want to develop and some sort of structure that they wish to create. They’ll work with an architect who will look at the land, understand its context in terms of what the client wants to achieve. And they will start to draw up a vision of what that structure might look like.”
This initial conceptual phase often happens before the engineers come on board, says Agrawal, “and sometimes we’re brought in early, which I like. Then we have to go through a number of steps to get the building built. Planning is one of our big milestones. We have to create a suitable structure to take to the planners, to make sure it is appropriate for the city, has the right transport links for the number of people, safety and so on.
“What happens then is a coming together of hundreds of people with different skills, jobs and points of view. But everyone wants to get the project built. So there are different types of engineers, consultants, and surveyors trying to work out costs. There are project managers trying to get the project moving, and we have to work together at every single stage to get the building from being a sketch that you see on a sheet of paper to that real thing that you see at the end of the day.”
Agrawal holds the scale of such achievements as the Shard in awe. “Sometimes, when I think about it, I still can’t believe that we actually build anything.” This isn’t in any sense a moment of disloyalty to her employer, but more an admission that “these things are so complicated. Not only that, but we build things linking countries such as bridges and tunnels. We build things across languages and differing regulations.”
When asked what she thinks is the key to making big projects work, Agrawal says it is due to the accumulative effect of “years and decades and centuries of experience. We have a process. So for example, by the time you reach Stage 2 you’ll know what level of detail you’re at. By Stage 3 you’ll have done this or that, and so on. It’s process-driven and you could draw it up in a flow chart if you have a process-engineering brain.”
Meanwhile, on the creative side, “it’s just like a piece of art. You start with a vision. You iterate until you get to a solution you’re happy with. But, ultimately what drives this herding process is that everyone wants it to be built. It’s the common goal that gets us to the end.”
Most architects have a reasonable idea of whether a structure will stand up, says Agrawal. But at some point they’ll need to call in the structural engineers for confirmation. The structural engineers will stay with the project while the construction of the ‘shell and core’ – the steel and glass – is taking place. “This is one of the phases that I find the most fun... when it is actually being built. This is because you can spend months, or even years, designing theoretical things on paper or on a screen. But until you see it at one-to-one scale on a construction site, I don’t think you can really appreciate what it is that you’ve designed. But by the time the electricity and carpets are being put in, our work is pretty much done.”
Agrawal admits that her interest in building things came out of “quite random” origins. “I never really said that this was what I wanted to do, or it was something I wanted to achieve in my life.” But she does recall that even as a toddler she was aware that there were differences between the cities she’d lived in in both the USA and India. “I probably couldn’t have articulated what those differences were. But I did know that I wanted to go down either the science or architecture route. I’ve always loved science and maths. Yet there’s always been something about buildings within me.”
She remembers as a child building with Lego, but didn’t really have a eureka moment until partway through her undergraduate physics degree at the University of Oxford, when she did a placement working alongside mechanical engineers. “On the surface, what they were doing was very different to what I was doing. But what they were doing was solving problems – how to move a huge piece of plant from Geneva to London – by applying physics and maths. I thought, ‘Aha, this isn’t theoretical physics’ (which I kind of liked). Then I said: ‘Right. I want to become an engineer’.”
‘A century ago a woman couldn’t become an engineer because women weren’t allowed to go to college to study engineering.’
At this point Agrawal picked up the Imperial College prospectus and quickly realised that, because she had a physics degree, virtually every engineering option was open to her. “I picked structural engineering partially because I knew I could do that in London and I really missed the big city. But I also partially picked it because I’d once wanted to be an architect and I thought that there was a connection here.”
What is clear is that from here on in Agrawal’s career has been one of well-earned success and hard-won respect. Yet what is also clear is her unease about the overall demographics of the engineering profession. She takes it as axiomatic that something as important as a discipline that informs society should reflect the way that society is made up. She admits that there has been a change in the demography over the past quarter of a century, while maintaining that “if our profession doesn’t reflect our population then we are doing something wrong. I believe that should be true for any profession, whether it is politics, law, publishing or engineering.
“My concern for engineering,” she begins, before reframing her statement as a ‘wish’ for engineering, “is that it becomes more inclusive. Structural engineers are creating the environment we live in. Robotics engineers are designing products for people with accessibility challenges. If we don’t reflect the population, how can we possibly do our best design work? One of the examples I use, that could apply to anyone regardless of race or gender, is that I am short. This means that in tube trains I can’t reach the bars I’m expected to hold on to, and so I get shouted at fairly regularly for not moving down the carriage.” What her point illustrates is that, without getting anywhere close to issues that carry legislated compliance concerns, “we’re not designing with full inclusivity in mind. These are things that should be thought about.”
In terms of the individuals entering engineering there is by any metric a gender bias. Agrawal starts by saying that “it is very nuanced why there aren’t so many women coming into engineering”, before correcting herself. “Actually, it’s not that nuanced at all. A century ago a woman couldn’t become an engineer because women weren’t allowed to go to college to study engineering. It wasn’t until 1945 that the first woman [scientist Kathleen Lonsdale] was admitted to the Royal Society. That’s only two generations ago. Women have been actively excluded and that’s not something that’s going to change overnight or in a hundred years. Therefore I think more active promotion of engineering to women is required to try to draw them in.”
Today, 90 per cent of engineers are men. Agrawal prefers to address the statistic this way around because she sees it as “more compelling” than saying that 10 per cent are women, implying some sort of positive societal achievement. “People are very surprised when you tell it this way. But there are also fewer role models. Women, young girls, mothers don’t see other women doing engineering that much, so they might not aspire for their daughters to do it. There’s also the brand impression, where engineering is portrayed as a dirty profession: being out on site, getting muddy in unpleasant weather. So there are all these reasons why women don’t study engineering or apply to become engineers. But then also, the way the education system works – you only study three or four subjects when you’re 16 – is too rigid. There is a major confidence issue: I know teachers that still genuinely believe that girls are not as good at physics and maths as boys. But there is simply no data to support that any more. And of course, at school you don’t study engineering. You study science.”
Whichever way you look at gender in engineering there is an anomaly that is nowhere close to reflecting the population. So what would Agrawal recommend? “I think that if this issue was easy to solve we would have already solved it. It’s difficult. I don’t think there’s one answer, and I don’t think there’s one right answer. When Brunel and Stephenson were alive people knew what engineering was. But I don’t think people in the UK know today. That’s not true of India, where I grew up. We know what engineering is there. But when I tell people in the UK that I’m a structural engineer they don’t know what that means. So there’s a cultural thing going on here.
“I have a theory that because we live in a developed country our engineering pretty much works and as a consequence we only really hear about it when stuff goes wrong. Whereas in India, when I was growing up, I’d keep hearing about a new road or a new bridge, with the amount of development being intense. And so I could see on a day-to-day basis the impact engineering was bringing to my life. Also in India there is a prestige to engineering and I don’t think that prestige exists here in the UK. That’s a brand problem. People don’t think that an engineer might be developing nano-robots that could help cure cancer.”
Agrawal recalls statistics about ethnicity in engineering and we discuss ways of addressing this and other imbalances. We also touch on the Leaky Pipe syndrome that creates losses of women from STEM careers. She tells me that we need more men in engineering too because the key to the success of the profession is simply that we need more engineers, full stop. “That way we can afford the inevitable losses to other professions.”