Work Hard

HLN meets… Paula McMahon

Ahead of International Women’s Day in Science, we caught up with civil engineer Paula about what it’s really like being a woman working in STEM.

Written by Rachael Nichol
Published 10.02.2022

For years women have been underrepresented in STEM, but recently, data has shown that one million women are now in the industry for the first time ever – meaning 24% of women make up the STEM workforce.

Civil engineer Paula McMahon is on a mission to inspire young women and girls to follow in her footsteps and she shares with us what working in STEM is really like.


Tell us all about some highlights of your career?

I’ve been the lead engineer in the early stages of the Nuclear New Build programme and been under the Thames, helping manage the inspection of the Thames Barrier. I’ve also managed large multi-discipline teams on large schemes such as Dubai Aluminium in the UAE and SNF Oil and Gas in Billingham, Stockton-on-Tees.

I now work for Sir Robert McAlpine as part of the team maintaining the A19. For several years I was the highway structures manager looking after the 221 structures on our stretch of the strategic road network. I now mainly look after the professional development of staff in the North of England and Scotland and the social value for my project.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I’m totally blessed that I love my job and that every day is different. In the post covid world, I worked from my home office having remote meetings to my site office to see someone face to face. I’ve started travelling again to Newcastle and London to speak to some sixth formers about apprenticeships.

I often talk about engineering with primary schoolchildren or strategise how the industry will tackle climate change with the trustees of the oldest Professional Engineering Institution in the world. What is typical is that no day is typical. However, sustainability is at the heart of everything.



What made you want to get into this industry?

Quite simply because I was good at maths and I loved solving problems.  As a child, I was far more into Lego than Barbie. I was extremely lucky to have had a supportive careers officer who recognised the skills set to match.  The school put me forward to attend a one-week residual STEM course called INPUT and the rest was history.



What does it mean to be a woman in STEM?

It used to mean that I was very different and my entrance into a site cabin was often met with quizzical looks and sometimes worse. Now it means just getting on with your job. However, since I’m part of an under-represented group, it offers the opportunity to use your experiences to inspire others. Still today, we hear young people and their teachers say, ‘I didn’t know girls could be engineers.’

What do you love the most about your role?

I love the satisfaction of helping others and what I do helps this happen almost every day. What’s not to love about assisting young people in thinking differently about their future aspirations or mentoring people through their individual professional development journeys and seeing them gain confidence along the way?



What challenges do you stereotypically face?

I find it quite weird that I never noticed any at the time I was running million pound projects. However, now that I am involved in several groups to improve diversity, I now realise that being talked over in meetings and having someone else steal your ideas was commonplace.

What advice would you give to young women going into your industry?

Go for it. It is far more welcoming than ever and you won’t be alone.



Which women inspire you?

My mother. She quietly and understatedly is a pillar of the community, all whilst encouraging myself and my sisters to build our paths. This combination of kindness and strength is with each of us and is the building block of my life.

Her support and encouragement to three confident and strong-willed young girls led to our training as civil engineers, electricians, painters and decorators.

What’s next for you?

I wish to give back. I’ve been lucky to win many awards and I have seen the good they do, so I’m helping identify worthy nominees who would not have the confidence to put themselves forward.

But mostly, I want to educate people of all ages that we need to be sustainable in the way we live and treat each other.  Working together more to make our workplaces more diverse is key to this, of course.



If you’re feeling inspired to start a career in STEM, visit Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd’s website to see available opportunities and follow them on Linkedin and Instagram.

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