IF engineering requires more advocates to persuade more women to join the profession, it need look no further than Sarah Peterson.

Ms Peterson is now 20 years into her career in the sector, and for the last seven has worked for Harley Haddow, the Edinburgh-based multi-disciplinary engineering consultancy.

Having recently worked on the new Johnnie Walker whisky tourism attraction in Edinburgh, and the expansion of the Bafta (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) offices in London, the director of the firm’s energy and sustainability arm can testify to the excitement and breadth of work the industry can offer.

“We’ve got a real good mix of different projects,” Ms Peterson told The Herald. “We work right across the UK [and] our London office is really growing. We’re finding we’re winning a lot of nice work in London.”

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However, Ms Peterson accepts more needs to be done to spread the appeal of the sector among women. Last week, industry body Scottish Engineering appointed Aggreko director of manufacturing Aine Finlayson as the first president in its 150-year history. The appointment shows progress is being made, if a little slowly.

“Certainly, when I joined the industry, I was probably the only female on my course,” Ms Peterson said.

“I was the only female engineer when I joined my first company. That has certainly changed – in Harley Haddow we have got female engineers across all of the disciplines and a lot of the offices – but we are still very much a minority. I don’t think it is necessarily for the want of us trying to get a balanced demographic. I think there are still so few women going in and doing it as an engineering course at university.”

Ms Peterson, who studied at the University of Strathclyde, suggested greater focus at school level was needed to convince more young women that engineering offered a “viable and interesting career”.

“We go round to schools and we do presentations and careers fairs to try and show it is a really viable career and that it’s moving,” she said.

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“And it certainly has totally changed from when I first started, but I still think it needs to move a wee bit forward. That is probably at school and university level.”

Asked what she enjoys about her role, Ms Peterson highlighted the “diversity” of the projects at Harley Haddow, which often see it work at the cutting edge of innovation. This is especially the case as the drive towards net zero has moved to the top of the agenda. She derives satisfaction from seeing projects through from start to end.

Ms Peterson said: “I say this to all the young engineers that join us – it is great to actually see a project develop from just a sketch. You can be involved in the design, you can design the strategy, and then you can actually see the finished article. You feel that you have had a part to play in that building.”

And there is currently no shortage of projects at Harley Haddow. Ms Harley said the firm has performed more strongly than it anticipated it would at the start of the pandemic, with the initial postponement of public sector projects when lockdown kicked in offset by an increase in demand for its design services, often from people looking to expand their homes. As such, turnover for the year to April 30, 2021, held steady at £6.7 million.

This year, the pipeline of work has been strong, with Ms Peterson saying the firm is “cautiously optimistic” over the outlook. The consultancy’s headcount stands at 110 and there are hopes to add to that number this year as it looks to make good on its expansion plans around the UK.

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Environmental sustainability is becoming increasingly prominent in its work. “We found that before Covid, and certainly with COP26 [taking place in Glasgow] it has come more

to the forefront,” Ms Peterson said. “The energy and net-zero part of the business is really pushing [forward].”

She added: “We did see a bit of a pause in public sector work, but that was kind of replaced with private sector [projects]. Particularly, our civil and structural departments saw an increase in private sector work. The structural department was very busy with people doing home improvements and upscaling, rather than moving.”

Meanwhile, the ongoing disruption to global supply chains has been making its presence felt, noted Ms Peterson, who highlighted that the price of steel has risen by as much as 70 per cent. The cost of timber is also higher than usual, with materials such as brick and blockwork harder to come by.

Ms Peterson said it is hard to discern whether such disruption is purely down to the pandemic.

“I think the full effect of Brexit is maybe being masked by the pandemic,” she said. “It’s difficult to see how things will look. It is hard to see if it is because of Covid or Brexit, but there has certainly been material shortages on site. We have certainly seen the cost impact, particularly for our structural colleagues.

“We have seen a lot of steelwork contractors fall by the wayside because they have obviously agreed contracts for a certain price, then steel prices have shot up.”

“Then it’s a bit of balance about construction workers as well. We are finding sometimes that the cost of materials will stay stagnant but you can’t get the contractors. We think the main building elements are still problematic, but hopefully things will settle down by the last quarter of the year.”

Six Questions

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

Leisure – Monaco, as a massive formula one fan having the opportunity to see the grand prix in Monte Carlo was a fantastic experience which I would happily do every year if I could!

Business – We are lucky to work right across the UK and get to visit some amazing sites from remote locations in the highlands of Scotland to central London and everything in between.  The constant variety is great.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

Engineer, initially as I enjoyed maths and problem solving and I’m very methodical.  As I got older an engineering profession still had a huge appeal with the ability to work across a number of sectors and allow me to be innovative and creative.

What was your biggest break in business?

Probably my first job in engineering, it was at a time where the number of women in the industry was very limited, and it was certainly harder to get a foot on the ladder.  That’s certainly changed but there is still a mountain to climb with woman in the construction industry in Scotland still only making up 10-15% of the workforce.

Recently it was Harley Haddow being awarded Net Zero Adviser of the year by the Association of Consultancy Engineers. Sustainability and carbon reduction has formed a key element to our designs for several years, but it was great to have this recognition in the year of COP26.

What was your worst moment in business?

Recession 2008 and of course Covid.  Any uncertainty in the construction industry is always a concern.  However, we’ve weathered the storm with the last couple of years actually being very strong despite the lockdown periods with construction keeping going. Certainly, working across a number of sectors has also helped spread the risk.

Who do you most admire and why?

There are several people that have inspired me during my career, from the teachers at school who instilled a “can do” attitude, to the pioneering female engineers who forged a path in the industry to the engineers,  clients and architects I work with on projects in my daily life.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

I’m an avid reader with a huge collection of books!  I enjoy a crime drama as a bit of escapism and am currently reading The Appeal by Janice Hallett which is a bit different. 

I have quite a diverse and eclectic music taste which Spotify is great for and listen to everything from the music of my student days to current play lists and everything in between.