Interview: Dervilla Mitchell, Arup director and the most senior female in its business

Dervilla Mitchell joined the Arup board in May to become the most senior female professional in the business, yet she remains deeply engaged in global projects as a structural engineer.

Dervilla Mitchell Arup

Interview by Antony Oliver

You joined the Arup board in May. What are the biggest challenges facing the firm right now? 

As we emerge from the global recession, managing growth and delivering the right skills mix to projects around the globe is going to be a challenge for all people businesses. There is pressure to recruit new staff and integrate them into the organisation in such a way that they share our culture and values and they feel enabled to succeed. 

In the project work I do, I have come to recognise that delivering the technical skills and resource levels are not enough. It’s  but also essential to getting the right team mix and developing strong relationships within the team and but also as well as with our client and colleagues, in order to achieve is vital to success. 

Part of our approach to getting the right staff in the right place is encouraging staff to take on international assignments which provides them with development opportunities but it also creates connections and enhances our knowledge share across the organisation. We currently have over 500 staff away from their home base of which 36 are early development scholarships.

You are Arup’s most senior woman – in what ways are you a role model for other women in engineering?

During my career I have carried out many different roles and I hope that others, whether they be men or women, will see that you can have a varied and interesting career in engineering and that in taking opportunities enables you can to develop and grow. 

I have often been asked who my role models are and I believe we need to identify the characteristics of others which resonate with us and not seek a single role model to follow. Be yourself but learn from others.

How does someone in your position inspire the next generation?

In order to get the next generation interested and enthused about engineering they need to get an understanding of what engineering is about at the start of secondary school or earlier. Too many students give up maths and science subjects too early and are unable to apply for engineering.

I try to help in a practical way by attending careers evenings at schools, or giving one off talks to students. I am a supporter of Speakers for Schools and admire the work they do in connecting engineers with students. I also have also provided mock interviews, work experience and other support to school students applying to universities. The Big Bang Fair with 60,000 attending last year also has a very big positive impact in attracting school students into careers in science and engineering. 

Encouraging more women into the profession is important – do you agree with quotas? 

Arup doesn’t have quotas but it has a number of networks and structures in place which encourages a culture of diversity and inclusion. We have been working hard for a number of years now to cultivate a more inclusive working environment. We operate in a traditionally male-orientated industry where less than 7% of engineering professionals are women, yet punch well above our weight - 28% of our technical staff are female. We want a work environment based on fairness, respect and merit, allowing talented people to succeed. Addressing the gender imbalance in our firm is a priority in a wider diversity drive, and we aspire to bring about long-term cultural change that allows our talented women to thrive. 

We are investing time and money into understanding the issues we have, attracting women to our firm at all levels and retaining those women for the benefit of our business. We have set ambitious targets for women in the firm and in leadership positions, and diversity (women in grades, gender shape of groups and succession planning) is an agenda item at each Board meeting. One effective mechanism to achieve this organisational change is through effective staff networks. Our Connect Women Network is open to all Arup employees (regardless of profession, gender or position) who support our aim of improving opportunities for women within our industry. 

This focus is clearly working - we have seen an increase in women in leadership and management positions in the past year. Our female graduate intake is 35%, from an applicant pool of approximately 14%. In previous years, we had a very low female apprentice recruitment rate – this year six of our 30 apprentices are female. This clearly demonstrates our wide appeal to young women as an employer. We believe that improving gender balance and creating a more inclusive culture will help our firm to nurture creativity and innovation, tap hidden capacity for growth and improved competitiveness, and positively impact our financial performance. 

How can engineers retain a technical involvement while also driving the business?

Yes I believe it is very important to stay connected and have a good understanding and appreciation of the technical aspects of our work. Without this it is very difficult to either sell our skills or deliver them on projects. I trained as civil engineer and for a large part of my career worked as a structural engineer. Today however I lead multidiscipline teams and I enjoy learning about other fields of engineering or new tools which we can use and seeing how we can apply them to projects to solve our client’s problems or deliver a better service. A well-integrated and efficiently delivered range of services tailored to a clients need is an attractive offer and does deliver business growth.

What are your current favourite projects? 

It would be really easy to pick one of the beautiful buildings like the London Aquatic Centre or the Reid Building for the Glasgow School of Art, but some of the masterplanning projects that we’re working on are transforming entire areas and communities. Kings Cross Station is a great example of how an unloved, historic rail terminus can be transformed into a dynamic transport interchange and also became the catalyst for regenerating the wider area. 

The importance of stations to a city is increasing as now seen as much more than just station buildings. Leeds which I visit because one of my children is studying there, is just one of the cities that it using the proposed HS2 as a catalyst for regeneration and we’re working closely with Leeds City Council on the redevelopment of the South Bank area of Leeds. 

Who have been your career mentors? 

There are many people who have been supportive and encouraging to me at various stages of my career. Bob Emmerson, a former chair of Arup, once told me that ‘you learn different things from different people’ and I have found that to be true. During my early years in Dublin I was given a lot of opportunity and responsibility by all the engineers I worked with and I think they had the skill to make me feel independent whilst sheparding me through a series of small and manageable projects. Steven Varga of Weidlinger took a chance on me in Boston and I had two very challenging years seeing some fast track project through from inception to completion. Later in London I had the opportunity to work with John Thornton who showed me the importance of remaining technical and how to work with architects and Tony Fitzpatrick provided both challenge and guidance when I was at Heathrow on T5. 

What keeps you engaged in and excited by infrastructure?

Realising ideas and seeing them delivered is what excites me most about my Jjob. I really enjoy working with architects and seeing the seeds of a project emerge from the creative process and I get huge satisfaction seeing a project delivered as it’s a very tangible outcome after what is often years of work. Things don’t always come easily and I have found the difficult or complex projects to be ultimately more satisfying. The particular joy of infrastructure project is seeing them in use and being enjoyed and valued by the public.

How do you keep yourself up to date with the latest technical drivers in engineering?

It’s hard to find time to be technically up to date but working on projects helps, together with reading and making sure you listening out. In Arup we are very lucky as there are many internal communications to keep us up to date and alongside skills networks for sharing our questions and quickly getting responses from our offices around the world.

My involvement in the Council for Science and Technology makes me think about the broader challenges facing the country and I look to engineering and technology to help provide solutions.

Infrastructure remains prominent in government thinking – how can the industry ensure it stays there?

One of the key challenges with Infrastructure is in articulating the benefits so that people can buy into and support a concept that might not materialise for many years. It’s easy, with hindsight, to look at a project like the Channel Tunnel rail link and see the benefits, but it’s equally as easy to forget the decades long process and debate that had to be navigated before the link existed.  

Industry can help keep infrastructure at the top of the agenda by communicating the value of investing in infrastructure. It’s essential that we articulate in really accessible language, the economic benefits, the benefits around convenience and connectivity as well as making a compelling case around regeneration. Take Kings Cross and the surrounding area - even ten years ago the incredibly positive impact of regenerating the station and surrounding area was unimaginable. Kings Cross has gone from a place people may have hurried through after dark to a vibrant, inspiring destination of choice.  

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