Mimi Nwosu

Back Story: Mimi Nwosu, ‘It is important to know your value and be your own champion’

Image credit: Sarah Plater Photography

TV presenter Dr Shini Somara talks to Mimi Nwosu, a civil engineer with a passion for finding alternative materials to contribute to sustainability in construction.

Shini Somara: What is it like being one of very few women in civil engineering?

Mimi Nwosu: When I started studying civil engineering at university, there were women on the course but nowhere near the number of men and I had a strong feeling this would be a reflection of the industry. I wasn’t wrong. I felt the university environment was very diverse, my class had students from all walks of life! I was shocked when I went into industry, to find that this was not the same. As a new graduate, this knocked my confidence. Completing pre-university education and living in London, I had become so comfortable with such diverse environments and inclusive peers. Not seeing that directly reflected in the industry was very strange to me.

To blend in at work, I held back certain aspects of myself, but eventually I got tired of not being myself. It’s emotionally draining having to put on a different facade to come into the office. Pretending to be somebody else is another job in itself. Now I show up as I am. Occasionally, I bring in home-cooked meals for lunch and previously would wear traditional tops – it doesn’t bother me the way it used to.

In one of the places I worked, we had an employee-led World Foods Day. The office was so diverse and it was great to share an aspect of different cultures. It is important organisations encourage cultural days to show their dedication to diversity and inclusion.
Regardless of who any of us are in engineering, what I have observed is that ‘soft skills’ are very important. I don’t have A-Level maths or physics, but what has been most crucial to me is how I communicate and work within a team. Soft skills and interpersonal skills really forge long-term team dynamics.

SS: Why is diversity and inclusion important in engineering?

MN: True inclusivity in design means engineers need to design for everybody, no groups are left out. Civil engineering must reflect society. Without it, we are designing-out a certain group of people and missing out on different perspectives. If we are able to bring everybody’s ideas together, we can identify gaps in our industry. There is still so much to invent and develop. Engineering is more than just innovation and creativity in terms of products and infrastructure, it’s a way to help people understand each other.

SS: What are the best pieces of advice you have received?

MN: My mother used to tell me, ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get’. How else are people supposed to know what it is that you need, if you don’t state it clearly? If you do ask, the worst that can happen is that the answer is no. Nowadays that ‘no’ is usually by email, not face to face, so it’s even easier. It is important to know your value and be your own champion, especially as someone who is under-represented.

SS: What makes a great mentor?

MN: Mentors have been so important to me during my career, but it’s not necessarily about having a mentor who directly looks like you or has had the same experiences. I’ve had all sorts of mentors, from men to women, from different cultures to me, engineers and non-engineers. What is important is having someone in your life who is willing to see your potential and help you to get there. Somebody who listens, but also gives practical advice. Somebody who can see your vision, but also helps you to put things into perspective.

It has been important to me to have very down-to-earth relationships with my mentors. It allows me to be open and honest. Mentees need someone in their corner, saying ‘Yes, you can’. This encouragement does not make you arrogant, but it does give mentees, especially minorities, the confidence and support to smash through stereotypes. It is often stereotypes and unconscious bias that hold the under-represented back.

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