International Women in Engineering Day - Beating the odds

21 June, 2017


Maela Baker’s life and career are proof that with enough grit and determination any obstacle can be overcome. In support of International Women in Engineering Day, she tells how she beat the odds to realise her dream of a career in civil engineering.

Today I am proud to say I am an accomplished chartered civil engineer with responsibility for managing a team delivering environmental improvement schemes. I also have the pleasure of being able to volunteer my time to promote engineering careers to school pupils and to support industry improvement initiatives.

My career has thrown up many exciting opportunities to progress personally and to be involved in cutting edge work within civil engineering and hydraulic modelling. I have been able to produce an innovative, award winning new tool for more targeted flood risk intervention works, and I am playing a leadership role in an ongoing scheme to improve wildlife habitats and create hydromorphological changes to rivers and watercourses at sites in the West Midlands and the south west of England.

But there was once a time when I never dreamed I would get to where I am today.

My dyslexia meant school was a struggle for me; I only started to read aged 11 and was told to expect nothing better than G grades in my GCSEs, meaning the prospect of pursuing a professional career path was remote.

I had been led to believe people like me were dumb, thick, stupid. I took solace in my music, something I was good at, and while performing around Cornwall I happened to hear about how Richard Branson, himself dyslexic, did not let this stop him and became hugely successful.

This inspired me to overcome my own challenges. I threw myself into my studies – climbing nine sets in English to teach the top set – and achieved a B in GSCE English out of a total 11 GCSEs all with A and B grades.

Excited at the opportunities available to me, I took up summer school placements in Finland and Cambridge and decided I wanted to become an engineer. However, as a woman in what remains an industry dominated by men, finding my way in was always going to be a challenge.

Hard work and determination pay off

I was living in Cornwall and found work experience opportunities hard to come by; my early attempts to persuade local firms to take me on were rebuffed, with one especially unhelpful contractor going so far as to laugh down the phone at me.

Fortunately I persisted and was lucky enough to land a placement with contractor Sir Robert McAlpine on one of Cornwall’s most prestigious developments, the Eden Project, with the help of the Construction Youth Trust. It was an absolutely amazing experience and one which would have me fixed on engineering for life.

I completed my MEng in Civil and Coastal Engineering, combining this with numerous placements, and joined multi-professional consultancy Pick Everard in Leicester in 2012 as a graduate, working as an assistant catchment planner looking after wastewater infrastructure and assessing risks linked to population growth and flooding.

Through hard work and determination my career has taken off since then. I became chartered in 2013 and my work to improve prioritisation of flood risk intervention works for Severn Trent Water won the CIWEM Dr Jenkins Award and the ICE research prize in the East Midlands Merit Awards.

Later I branched out to provide civil engineering designs for schools, car parks and military facilities, along with water and waste water infrastructure schemes. My current work as a consultant for contractor NMCNomenca sees me lead a team delivering National Environment schemes, where I work on a seconded basis in Severn Trent Water’s offices.

Supporting the next generation of engineers

Outside of work, I am immensely proud to be chair of the IET East Midlands branch and a STEM ambassador for schools in the region where I have, over five years, engaged with around 8,000 pupils and students of all ages to encourage young people to be interested in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects.

I want to tell my story as I believe it is proof that with the right mindset, hard work and a willingness to seek out opportunities, anyone, especially women, can overcome adversity and make it in this industry. I hope I can inspire others who have aspirations but are facing difficulties, for whatever reason, that they can overcome their obstacles and fulfil their potential.

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