A conversation about engineering: celebrating International Women in Engineering Day, 23 June 2023

Meet three of our female members of staff, and find out about their engineering journey.

Thre women smiling and talking

We sat with a few of our female members of staff for International Women in Engineering Day (23 June 2023) to discuss their journey into engineering, challenges they have faced and how they overcame them, and their advice to prospective female students who are unsure if engineering is for them. 

Meet Virginia Stovin (Professor of Green Infrastructure and Urban Drainage), Genevieve Langdon (Professor of Blast and Impact Engineering) and Vanessa Speight (Professor of Integrated Water Systems). 

Let’s dive right in!

Why did you choose engineering?

“ Actually I didn't initially choose engineering.  Instead I chose to stick with my favourite 'A' level subject - Physical Geography - at University.  At the end of my degree I had a good understanding of why urban rivers were polluted, but I didn't have the tools to do anything about it.  Moving into engineering gave me the opportunity to start solving real problems that affect society and our environment, particularly around the way we manage stormwater runoff to reduce problems of urban flooding and pollution.” - Virginia

“ I always enjoyed science and problem solving so engineering was a good fit for me.  Now I am Professor of Integrated Water Systems, working on research to understand water quality in urban water systems and ensure that infrastructure is delivering the best public health possible.” - Vanessa

“ I was really good at science and maths, but I wanted to do something practical that would have real-world impact.. so I chose engineering because it combined the two.” - Genevieve

What is your current role and how did you get here (brief journey outline)?

“ I am currently Professor of Green Infrastructure for Stormwater Management.  I have worked in the Department for more than 30 years, initially as a Research Assistant (completing my PhD alongside), then slowly but surely working my way up through the ranks of Lecturer, SL and Reader to Prof.  These days there would likely be some PostDoc experience between PhD and Lecturer, but that was not so common at the time.  I've had to try a couple of times for each promotion, but believing in what I do has helped me to develop some resilience and to keep trying.  I've had two career breaks for maternity leave, and worked part-time for a few years when my children were pre-school age”. - Virginia

“ I am currently Professor of Blast and Impact Engineering in the Civil and Structural Engineering Department at UoS. I took an undergraduate degree in Integrated Engineering and then a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. During my PhD I tested and analysed the behaviour of blast walls used on offshore platforms to create safe places for people to live on the rigs. I then went to work in South Africa as a researcher and later as an academic. I spent 15 years in Cape Town moving up the ranks to Head of Department. In 2020 I moved back to the UK and took up my current role in Sheffield.” - Genevieve

“ I started my career working in consulting after a Masters degree in Environmental Engineering, but returned to university for a PhD when I wanted to go deeper into understanding problems.  After graduating, I returned to consulting doing applied research in collaboration with water utilities and regulators.” - Vanessa

What were your biggest challenges on your journey and how did you overcome them?

“I was left unemployed when working on precarious PDRA projects and I got pregnant, as my contract expired and was not renewed. I saw it coming, and thankfully applied for a fellowship with the 1851 Royal Commission. They awarded me a fellowship which allowed me to re-enter academia after my first child was born, and supported my move to Cape Town. In Cape Town I had a great mentor and supporter who helped me thrive. The environment there was very supportive of women.

There have also been challenges around people's expectations of me and what that might mean for my career, but by being firmly and fairly myself I have been okay. Sometimes its meant there were projects I couldn't take on and students who refused to be supervised by me (all in the past thankfully) but there have been more up-sides than downsides and I have no regrets.” - Genevieve

“ One of the biggest challenges was returning to academia 10 years ago, where I needed to demonstrate that skills from consulting like clear communications, bid writing, and building effective collaborations are just as valuable in an academic environment.” - Vanessa

“ I chose to work on a research topic which interested me (i.e. the hydrological performance of vegetated sustainable drainage systems), but which wasn't necessarily of immediate need/interest to industry.  That has made it hard to attract research funding.  I've learnt to be quite resourceful, recycling kit and data to address new questions.  Sometimes people can be the biggest challenge, and not always one it's easy to solve!  Good collaborations take time to develop, but are definitely worth investing in.” - Virginia

What are your tips for potential female students who want to go into engineering but are unsure if it's right for them?

“ If any students are unsure that engineering is right for them, I think they need to look around to see the wide range of possible career opportunities that engineering skills can support.  It’s not just about working with numbers, it’s really about working with people and making a tangible difference.” - Vanessa

“ Engineering is a great choice for anyone who wants to make a difference.  There are so many challenges out there - not least those associated with the climate emergency - needing creative, imaginative people with a good understanding of how things work and the skills to make them work better.  In many engineering professions there are always new and stimulating problems to solve, so you can do something that benefits society and keep yourself stimulated at the same time.” - Virginia

“ Engineering is diverse and civil engineering in particular has such a direct impact on our world that it's definitely a worthy career choice! The world has moved on since I had most of my negative experiences (almost 20 years old!) and it's a much better place for women now. For example, our degree courses are over 30% women. I would say that if you like maths and science then don't rule out a career in engineering. If you can, get some work experience, attend university open days and ask questions. Take design or engineering subjects alongside your other GCSEs or level 3 qualifications to get a taste of what it's like. Anything to help you build your confidence and make informed career choices.” - Genevieve

Learn more about our undergraduate degrees and how you can start your own journey into civil and structural engineering. 

Our league table rankings

Top 100 Civil & Structural Engineering department in the world and 9th in the UK according to the QS World University rankings by subject (2023).

10th in the UK according to the Times University League Table (2024).

12th in the UK according to the Complete University Guide (2024).

Search for a course

Use our search to find the right course for you.