For International Women in Engineering Day, Daniel Gayne spoke to one of the sector’s only female MDs about tossing coins, working in the Middle East and where the sector goes from here  

Heads or tails. If it had landed the other way, Dr Sarah Prichard might not be sitting in front of me. Today, the Irishwoman is the managing director of Buro Happold’s business in the UK, China and Hong Kong, the latest stage of a two-decade career at the £213m-turnover engineering consultant which has seen her lead major developments across the world. 

But things could have been very different. Once upon a time, Prichard was Ireland’s young historian of the year (as chosen by the Irish Times) and seemed destined for a life in the humanities. She was always interested in maths and science, though, and at a university open day made the decision on a whim to check out a lecture on engineering.

“Some friends from school were going off to do an introduction to business, and I didn’t want to do that. So I opted – literally to fill an hour – to do an introduction to engineering,” she recalls. “At the end of that hour I was hooked.” 

Dr Sarah Prichard © Buro Happold

Dr Sarah Prichard, managing director for UK buildings, Hong Kong and China at Buro Happold

But she still loved history and, forced to pick between the two, decided to settle the matter in the simplest way possible – with a coin toss. “Many people laugh, but it is not a bad way of doing it, because it is not the way the coin turns up, it’s your emotional response to what that coin says that matters.”

The coin landed in favour of engineering and Prichard has not looked back. “I have tossed coins many times since,” she laughs. 

Prichard is a Buro Happold lifer. Impressed by the firm’s Quaker foundations and its commitment to “touch the earth lightly”, she joined as a graduate structural engineer in its Bath office in January 2001, immediately after completing her PhD on the response of concrete to impact.

In the early years she specialised in vibration consultancy, applying the high-tech analysis learned during her PhD to hospital and laboratory jobs. But it was in 2012 that she made what was perhaps her biggest career step, moving to Qatar to work on the Msheireb Downtown Doha project.

For three years, she led the firm’s engineering work on phases two and three of the project, a huge-scale re-imagining of the heart of the old city. “Here in the UK, we are often creating one building at a time. It is very rare that we are doing it all at once. On that project, we were on this huge mega-site over basements that went from three to five stories and going up to 20 stories above ground.” 

The job was “probably not the most complex of engineering challenges”, according to Prichard. Rather it was “the sheer pace and scale of what going on simultaneously” that was the real challenge. Thousands worked on the site each day, with Prichard and her Buro Happold team jumping between a range of activities – draining, earthworks, concrete compositions.

The scheme became a “second child” to Prichard – her first being the three-year-old she took with her to the Middle East – but working as a woman in a senior engineering role in Qatar brought its own challenges. 

MsheirebDowntownDohaPhase2and3_02 (1)

Source: Buro Happold

Dr Sarah Prichard moved to Qatar to work on the Msheireb Downtown Doha project in 2012

The main challenge was “the sheer scale” of the job and the fact that it was all happening at once. While the Qatar Foundation, which led the development, was chaired by Sheika Moza, the wife of the then-emir, female presence further down the chain was a rarity.

Prichard recalls how she would be addressed as “sir” on site – nobody was quite sure how to address a female boss at work – and one night, working late, was asked whether she needed to go home to cook for her husband. “I remember meetings where people were shouting at me – you know, there were issues on site – and at the end of the meeting one of them came up to me and said, ‘I’m terribly sorry, I’ve never shouted at a woman before’,” she recalls.

“Of course, he was not used to dealing with women. That is just a reflection of evolution of cultures, not of anything else.”

[One man said] ‘You have made me think differently about what my wife and daughter can do’

But, if she holds any bitterness regarding these experiences, it does not show. The state of affairs in the Middle East has evolved even in the years since she was there and she thinks she may have played a small part in changing the minds of some on her job.

At the end of the project, one man came up to her and said: “We will miss you on site, Dr Sarah, you have made me think differently about what my wife and daughter can do.”  

In 2015, she returned to the UK to lead the structures group in Bath, before becoming engineering director in 2017 and managing director the following year. She had never intended a move into management but says she has always loved “looking after people”.

She recalls: “I thought, as I came back from Qatar, that I would lead big projects. I was good at leading big projects. But it is not a wild leap to lead big projects and then to understand how projects are led and how businesses are led.” 

Sarah Prichard’s pitch for engineering to a young woman choosing her university options today 

“The sector is really diverse. It is such an exciting qualification and such an exciting career path, but it is so diverse. You can do so many different things, you can be very structural and design bridges, or you can design buildings or become specialised, as I did for a bit, in vibration engineering of buildings.

“It is such a broad field and there are plenty of ways you can move laterally at any point in your career. And it is an incredibly rewarding career. You can really get to see realised in built form that which you imagined and thought about.

“You are able to look at it and say, ‘I built that’. There is something really important about being able to take people who are important to you in life – your parents, your children, your husband, your wife – and say, ‘Look, I was part of creating that’.

“That is incredibly powerful, and you don’t get it in lots of other things.” 

She partly attributes the change in direction to Buro Happold’s leadership development programme, noting that the firm is “full of people who have had long careers here, often not where they started”. In her senior position at the company, she has tried to push for policies to encourage other women to rise through the ranks – from gender diverse shortlists for roles, mentoring, maternity and paternity policies covering six months on fully pay, as well as surrogacy leave and adoption leave. 

“Flexibility has been helped by hybrid working, but the more we encourage flexibility for everybody, the less women seem to be different because they have caring responsibilities,” she says. “The more that flexibility is the norm and not the other, the more acceptable it is.”

According to Prichard, about 30% of the technical workforce at Buro Happold are women today, compared with roughly 20% in the UK overall.  

Engineering is going to be a key way of unlocking the problems of the climate emergency and that is without doubt the greatest challenge of our time

Improving those statistics is partly a question of changing perceptions of the industry, she says, noting that her own experience had been relatively unusual. “I was encouraged by my parents to do whatever I wanted to do – my father in particular was very supportive,” she says.

“Some girls are put off because of parents who don’t know, don’t encourage. Society needs to see that it is normal – that it is not a dirty mucky job.”

This work, Prichard says, needs to focus on shaping impressions at a young age, and Buro Happold already sends its engineers into secondary schools to talk about careers and takes on year 10 students for work experience. Emphasising the significance of engineering in addressing the climate emergency will be a crucial part of attracting a young and diverse pool of talents, Prichard believes.

“Engineering is going to be a key way of unlocking the problems of the climate emergency and that is without doubt the greatest challenge of our time,” she says. “Policies and strategies will help, but actually a lot of it will come down to engineers to solve these problems.” 

She herself is “excited and frightened in equal measure” about tackling the climate crisis. “In some ways it is has been brilliant engineering that has got us into this – with the industrial revolution – but actually it is also the way we will get out of it,” she says. “That will keep us busy for my career and well beyond, I have no doubt.” 

International Women in Engineering Day

This is the 10th year of International Women in Engineering Day, organised by the Women’s Engineering Society. It aims to give women engineers around the world a profile when they are still hugely under-represented, with 2021 figures indicating that in the UK only 16.5% of engineers are women. You can follow posts today using #INWED23 on social media