The poster girl of modern engineering, Roma Agrawal, talks steel, sexism and skyscrapers and tells us how to scale the heights of architecture and smash the glass ceiling.
Not many structural engineers get the chance to star in an advert with Annie Lennox and Rita Ora. And that’s not even the start of it. Roma Agrawal, engineering’s new poster girl and role model, has the kind of extra-curricular credentials that put most of her profession to shame. Aside from being a full time structural engineer and associate for the consultancy group WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, she is a tireless campaigner for better science education in schools and universities (which she now visits 30 times a year), has spoken at the House of Lords on social diversity, and – apart from gracing our screens in an M & S advert – she has also just signed a book deal with Bloomsbury. And lest we forget, she helped build London’s tallest and most iconic building, The Shard. Women may well be good at multitasking, but this good? “I don’t sleep” she laughs.
Born in Mumbai, Agrawal’s peripatetic upbringing saw her move between the UK, the US and India before securing a place at Oxford to study physics. Within 18 months of finishing her master’s degree in structural engineering at Imperial College, she was one of the team of structural engineers who joined Renzo Piano’s team on The Shard. She was just 23 at the time.
“I was lucky to work on such an amazing project so early on in my career.” She says. The Shard – a jagged, glistening mass of glass and steel, slap bang in centre of London’s historic heart – certainly changed the capital’s skyline forever. Its pioneering use of ‘top down’ construction methods also made it a dream brief for any engineer, let alone one so young. “We’d never built a core up while there were no foundations underneath, so that was exciting.”
Although daunting, the experience proved extremely gratifying. But there were wobbles on the way. “I’d go on some sites and walk into the cabin and I’d be surrounded by page 3 pictures plastered on the walls. And then, as a woman, I’d have to go and talk to these men about engineering….but I chose not to let it affect me. I had a job to do.” A pin up girl of a very different sort, Agrawal tells me that on average women make up 8-9% of the engineering workforce. It’s something she’s dedicated to changing. And she’s starting with schools. “Girls are fed messages from a very early age…that they’re not good at science. We’ve got to change that. It’s about awareness of the amazing careers to which science can lead.”
But being a woman in such an overwhelmingly male dominated industry has never phased her. “I don’t care.” She says matter-of-factly. If anything it’s proved useful. “The chances of me remembering all of the men I’ve met are a lot smaller than them remembering me. It’s an opportunity to build relationships… so I think being different can have its advantages. Not all my colleagues on The Shard were asked to be in an advert for M & S,” she says wryly.
Ten years on, her passion for her profession is clearly undiminished. At one point in our interview she admits to being “completely obsessed with tunnels.” I can’t say I share the sentiment, but her enthusiasm makes me want to. “It’s just so inspiring to know that as an engineer you can have such a huge impact on a city.” So it’s onwards and upwards for the woman who’s smashed the proverbial glass ceiling. Who knows what’s in store for Roma Agrawal. The sky’s the limit.