Did you know that Britain has the lowest percentage of women engineers in Europe? At just 6%, this hasn’t increased since 1919. When the modern reality of engineering isn’t promoted, and it’s perceived as a man’s profession involving grease and grubby overalls, it’s hardly surprising that women rarely consider it a career option.

My multiple award-winning Page 1 Woman™ is one of a rare breed of women in structural engineering. Meet Najwa Jawahar, wise beyond her years, energetic, bold, assertive, ambitious, and enthusiastic. She’s on a mission to mentor and inspire young people to enter and thrive in the structural engineering profession.

Obtaining her first award whilst an undergraduate, in an IStrucTE’s international design competition, three additional prestigious awards have followed. But that’s not all; she’s created a global network of 300 engineering graduates and apprentices which has established her as a ‘one to watch’. Doors to developmental opportunities and to making a bigger difference widely have opened. ‘I’ve now started to design and deliver my own projects, and I'm stepping into public speaking too’. And she’s still only 30.

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She has two massive ambitions, which she’s on the way to achieving. ‘I want to be a technical leader, running my own team and projects internationally and I want to be a role-model for the industry’s younger people, particularly girls, because there's a general lack of engineers in this country. Often girls, especially in the Asian community, don’t pursue their talents in science and math. Often they choose professions like hairdressing or make-up artistry instead. I want to change that perception about science’.

Impressive? Here’s Najwa in her own words.

 

Describe what you do

Najwa: I've been a structural engineer since graduating in 2011. I specialise in designing tall buildings. I take clients’ visions, transform them into reality and get them constructed. I work alongside architects and other engineers to develop an idea into something tangible and buildable. My job is to make buildings stand up. I do this through calculations and drawings, and use sophisticated computational tools to create visuals and test the structures and design in the virtual environment safely, before construction. At construction stage, I focus on the details and send them to the contractors, who build them. My role then changes into supporting the construction team to ensure that the emerging building is still meeting the design’s requirements.

So, how did I get here? During my sixth form, I told my physics teacher that I wanted a career in design, maths and physics, which I loved. He listed several career options; most were engineering related. My first option was nuclear engineering, but I feared getting caught in the common misunderstanding that Muslims with knowledge of nuclear science are dangerous. So, I chose structural engineering, which appealed to me as I remembered being fascinated by my uncle’s work during my early years.

What excites me about my job is that the buildings I design will always be there, even after I die. They’ll be my legacy – like my children.

It’s frustrating that structural engineering is seen as a man’s job. I can’t see why, because both genders can work in the office, using their brains, knowledge, and experience to solve problems. It's a difficult yet truly rewarding job. You’re required to be there, especially during the construction - racing against time to deliver quickly because delay is expensive.

In Middle Eastern and Asian countries, engineering is well-paid, but not in Britain. Here, the term ‘engineer’ is misunderstood because everyone calls themselves an engineer. There are ‘printer engineers’, ‘gas engineers’, so people don't know what engineers actually do. That could be why women don't consider it for a career.

 

What essential steps did you take to get to where you are now?

Najwa: I made a wise decision after university to move to London, where tall buildings are in abundance. If I’d stayed at home in Bradford there wouldn’t have been many opportunities for a graduate especially during a recession, so I might have quit eventually. So, I applied to companies everywhere. After 7 months unemployed and 250+ rejections, I was about to give up, and an engineer on LinkedIn suggested that I apply to a company I’d never heard of. At the interview, I confidently presented my IStructE competition entry to five directors. They were really impressed and hired me.

Leaving home was a big and bold decision. Not only was I the first from my family, but I was a girl leaving home to follow her dreams. Going against the cultural norm it initially met with resistance. Leaving home, however, allowed me to follow my dreams and simultaneously grow up through learning to live alone in a city where I knew no-one.

 

What was the one most significant thing you did that got you into your current position?

Najwa: It’s something I do constantly. I ask questions. At work, people often don’t ask for what they want or think. Perhaps they’re afraid of being wrong or of hearing ‘No’. When I first started, I received great advice from a senior within the business, ‘Never be afraid of asking questions, no matter how stupid you think they are.’ That stuck with me because no matter what I think, I ask questions. That’s how I learn. As a responsible senior and structural engineer, I can’t afford to make mistakes. I’m responsible for many lives. That’s why I always encourage my team - “Ask me, no matter what.” One shouldn’t be afraid of the ‘are you stupid’ look, because the consequences of getting things wrong in the construction industry are huge. If you don’t get an answer from one person, find someone else. 

 

What was the greatest challenge on your journey?

Najwa: First, finding my initial engineering job. With 250+ rejections, I questioned whether I’d chosen the right field. I’m glad I persevered because I wouldn't have achieved my dreams or my awards. I wouldn’t have everyday challenges, decision-making power or opportunities to meet and work with different types of people.

I enjoy the challenges that being a structural engineer brings daily, especially in this male-dominated environment. I feel great when young women say they admire me because of my achievements and of having overcome many barriers. To be honest, over time, I’ve learnt to see beyond barriers and simply focus on what I want to achieve.

Second, I’ve learned something new from every project I’ve worked on about engineering and primarily about myself, my skills and what I’m capable of. Sometimes when under peak pressure, I feel I can’t handle it anymore. But finally, I learn and deliver.

 

What was your greatest lightbulb moment?

Najwa: At the 2017 Women in Construction and Engineering Awards night, I stood before 500 amazing women in the industry, holding the award for Best Young Woman Engineer. At that moment I realised that I was amongst the top women in the industry. I now feel more confident and empowered to take on responsibilities, yet six years ago I was seeking just one opportunity.

Now I'm in a position where I have a lot of power, which I can either use for my own benefit or for others. When I was younger I dreamt of being a successful businesswoman, probably because I wanted to be known and in a powerful position. I want to use my power to touch many lives and leave a legacy, that’s more than buildings. That's why being a role model, mentoring and training appeal to me. 

My story provides an example of what a shy, 16 year old from Pakistan can achieve when she starts believing in herself. I’m proud when my childhood friends tell me that they never thought I would get this far. It validates my success and justifies my hard work. I want to share this with everyone, hence, why I’m seeking bigger platforms through public speaking.

 

What resource has been crucial to your success?

Najwa: My family and friends have always been crucial to my progress and success. They’re my backbone and support network. They give me honest feedback, remind me to focus on my strengths in times of self-doubt. They’ve helped me overcome challenges and learn from setbacks. And because I dislike hearing ‘You can't do it’, my family use this approach to urge me to act when I’m facing uncertainties. Without their support, I might have given up long ago.

 

What do you understand by leadership, and how has it informed your role as a leader?

Najwa: I was always labelled bossy. But ‘bossy’ means you’re a woman leader. Leadership for me is power to help others reach where they want to go. I’m a role-model, supporting a team, and my leadership style is to be open and honest so that I gain trust.

This view of leadership has helped me be a better team player because from the start I make it clear that I’m in the team. When working with my team in India, which had previously experienced a lack of honesty and transparency, I cleared upfront, that ‘I’m expecting openness; we’re in the same team, delivering the same project. I make mistakes too. So, if you don't know something, just ask me. And if you think I'm wrong tell me.’

 

What difference has it made being a Muslim woman leader?

Najwa: In construction, there's still much to do to get more women at management level. Despite the drive for change, construction is still dominated by white men.

If I, a Muslim woman were to stand for election as mayor tomorrow, I would lose as it's not acceptable yet. But, it hasn’t worked against me in my profession. It might be a challenge when I go further up where it’s more competitive, and other factors start playing in.

Being a Muslim woman leader inspires the Muslims I’m mentoring because it’s unexpected. Some of my LinkedIn and Twitter followers call me inspiring because people often enter a profession and leave their religion, or follow religion and leave their profession. I’ve kept both, so, anything is possible.

 

What are your top three tips for women who want to be leaders in their field?

Najwa: First, develop self-confidence. If you don't trust yourself, no one else will. Start by listing your achievements and the challenges you've overcome. You’ll realize how strong you are. And you’ll start developing confidence because you know deep down that if you can overcome big problems, you can solve others too.

Second, ensure you’re ready to be a leader. Discover your leadership style, your strengths and weaknesses and where you’re comfortable. Then be your version of a leader rather than mimicking a typical leader.

If I were to lead a group of 300 people having never done so, it could be disastrous. But when I know my strengths, I can play to them to start leading that group and develop new skills.  Knowing my leadership style helps me to do this and increases my chances of success.

I tell my mentees to focus more on playing to their strengths rather than on their weaknesses. Because you can always work with someone whose strengths are your weaknesses and make a perfect team.

Third, never give up on your dreams because if you start doing something else, you’ll regret it. If I hadn’t persisted in getting into structural engineering, I wouldn’t have gained self-fulfilment.

When I die I’ll know I’ve left a positive mark. And I’m happy about that. But I’ve a bigger vision, which I'm realizing one step at a time.

To find out more about Najwa, click here.

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