I am surprised by how many other engineers I have met or found online who also have a strong creative side. To be honest, I shouldn’t be surprised, because I also have a strong creative side; I love music, crafting, cooking, and even studied graphic design after becoming an engineer. My initial reaction of surprise plays into the engineer stereotype of what many of us assume engineers should think, act or look like (as I discussed in a previous engineer stereotype post).
Charlotte Woodhall-Jones is one of the many creative engineers. She works as a geotechnical design engineer and is the owner of Moonflower, a unique handmade children’s clothing shop, based in the UK. Charlotte is really hustling; balancing her engineering career, raising a young family, and running an inspiring kids clothing shop. She’s making it work by being her own boss – working freelance on projects she chooses that fit her schedule and needs.
Charlotte’s story really resonated with me, and I am especially impressed by how she made her personal happiness and wellbeing a priority when making career decisions. I hope you enjoy reading about Charlotte’s engineering journey in our interview below.
Engineering Emily (EE): How and when did you decide to become an engineer?
Charlotte Woodhall-Jones (CWJ): I studied Geology at University and was inspired by a module in Engineering Geology. I always wanted to stay with Geology, but most career paths were into Academia (which was not for me at that time) or into the financial sector. Having exposure to the more applied parts of Geology as part of my Undergraduate programme led me to pursue a career in Engineering Geology/Geotechnical Engineering.
EE: What was your college major?
CWJ: We don’t have college majors in the UK, so I have resorted to the fountain of knowledge that is Google, and that would be Geology.
EE: What was your university experience like as an engineering student?
CWJ: I thoroughly enjoyed my university experience. I wasn’t a pure engineer, more a scientist at this point in my career, but I loved the outdoors side of the degree – geology courses come with lots of fieldwork to some dull places, but also some very exciting places too.
I also really enjoyed the more analytical elements of the subject, and did my Undergraduate dissertation on geochemical relationships within crystals contained in metamorphic rocks. I couldn’t tell you what it all meant now, but at the time I knew exactly what I was talking about.
EE: Did you do any engineering internships during college?
CWJ: My route into becoming a Geotechnical Engineer was secured because of a work placement I arranged in my final year of undergraduate course. I attended a careers event organized by the Geological Society of London, and met a gentleman called Mark Cunningham who was manning the Engineering Geology stand.
I talked to him about the career and how I could best gain employment. He gave me his business card and told me to contact him, I did and he organized a paid 2-week placement during the Easter break. That placement gave me the exposure I needed and confirmed that I definitely wanted to pursue a career as a Geotechnical Engineer, and it also gave the company I was placed with an extended interview period. Off the back of the placement I was offered a graduate position: my first job and first rung on my career ladder.
EE: What industry do you currently work in?
CWJ: My work has always been in or affiliated with the Civil Engineering or Structural Engineering Sector. Although Geotechnical Engineering is a branch of Civil Engineering, it is closely linked to Structural Engineering because it provides the support system to the structural loads.
EE: What has been your career path from college graduation up to today?
CWJ: Having secured my first job, I spent a few years learning the basics and being entirely hands on with Geotechnical Engineering. My first Company was a Site Investigation Consultancy with specific Geo-environmental Expertise – contaminated soils. I loved the overlap of the site-based extraction and logging of soils and rocks with the subsequent reporting and interpretation. It was perfect for the stage of my career I was at; the projects were simple and very much tied to small-scale residential developments or energy sector refurbishments of power infrastructure (sub-stations and pylons).
I spent a couple of years with this company but was eager to expand my knowledge beyond their client base and project portfolio. I also wanted to learn more of the design theory, which granted you can get from project experience, but I was keen and somewhat impatient. So, I applied for a Post-Graduate Degree (MSc) in Engineering Geology to provide a broader theoretical knowledge within this area of expertise.
I found that having the industry experience made this degree much more accessible compared to some of my colleagues who had come straight from their undergraduate courses. I excelled as a result and completed with a Distinction.
But, the MSc also highlighted how restricted my experience for applying these new skills would be with my employer, so I made the decision to find alternative employment in a slightly different sector.
I joined a new company that was more structural engineering focused, with projects aligned with world-renowned architectural practices. I was able to apply my newly found knowledge on plenty of larger UK and overseas schemes. I designed bigger site investigations, used a variety of investigation methods and interpretation included outline design for foundations, retaining structures and earthworks.
I loved my job, and my career path, and started to train for chartership (professional accreditation) with both the Geological Society of London and the Institution of Civil Engineers.
And then the 2007 credit crunch hit… but my firm was resilient because they had a worldwide basis of projects. However, what was becoming more and more noticeable was that my work on schemes was not going noticed and my requests for support for experience for professional accreditation was being ignored. I also felt that I was performing above my grade, but my requests for promotion was being declined because I had not progressed technically (even though I had asked for the opportunity to be supported in this).
It is only on reflection years later that I now understand what was actually going on at this time. I was a Geologist NOT an Engineer. And that company I worked for rated Engineers above Geologists… Geologists were good for investigation but obviously not design work. By 2009, I was disillusioned with where I was going, and when the opportunity for voluntary redundancy was offered (they realized 2 years post-credit crunch that they were not as well spread as they thought) I took it and the opportunity to take some time out of engineering to decide whether it was still the career for me.
In 2009, I took a few months off to reflect, and had a completed application and acceptance onto a PGCE course to retrain as a teacher. It was only after a visit to a secondary school that I realized I was being reactionary to the institutionalized bias of this prestigious engineering firm, and that I was actually a very good engineer. I just needed to find “my people”.
I went for an interview with a smaller but infrastructure orientated engineering consultancy, and was not only offered the role, but also given a promotion to Senior Engineer, which had eluded me for years previously. Taking this time out for reflection resulted in finding this role that was perfect for me.
It was in this role, with this company, and with this mentor/line manager that I truly came into my own. Within 6 months of appointment I attained professional accreditation with the Geological Society of London, and was working with support towards becoming a Chartered Engineer. I gained experience in design work on various infrastructure schemes, and was given responsibility and trusted by my line manager. I enjoyed the work and the team that I worked in.
But slowly, I experienced small levels of institutionalized sexism and assessments of my capabilities based on my educational background. I was a woman and a geologist (although professionally accredited) and some more traditional engineers and close colleagues could not see past this.
In 2011, I gave birth to my first child, and in 2012 I returned to work part-time. And this to me marked the decline of my love affair with engineering.
I found that engineering design and engineering consultancy could not cope with a senior member of staff working part-time. It is a reactionary working environment, and as planned and organized as I was with my time, my colleagues and clients expected responses 7 days a week. I was finding people I worked with to be increasingly judgmental of my working arrangement, and would not and could not work to my availability.
I was also finding work life balance with a small child difficult. Lack of sleep, long commutes and increased work stresses resulted in increased anxiety and associated mental health decline. I tried a change in employer to one closer to home with a shorter commute, but after the 6 month honeymoon period the same stresses and issues became apparent.
With school years looming I moved to a consultancy literally on my doorstep, and again I had a honeymoon period and the promise of improved work life balance. I became a Chartered Engineer with the Institution of Civil Engineers during this time, but the same lack of project management and expectations of countrywide travel at short notice caused significant life pressures.
It was with the arrival of my second child in 2016, and my return to work in 2017, that led to my decision to go self-employed. I had given my employer more than required notice of my pregnancy, was open and honest about the expectations they could place on me on my return (having been through small child demands with my first) and suggested that they reorganize the geotechnical engineering team and provided a team structure.
I was ignored, and the temporary replacement was inadequate and the replacement of the temporary replacement was traditional with institutionalized sexism. I returned to a mess, and expectations that I would work a full time equivalent of hours in the reduced part-time hours I was contracted to. I suffered a massive amount of work-related stress, and after a break down in work and sick leave resultant from work related stress I made the decision in 2018 to go self-employed.
I do not regret my decision, but I am saddened that my industry is not set up to cope with flexible working arrangements.
I now chose who I work with and what I work on. Yes the projects are small and simple, but I am more in control of my headspace and work related anxiety.
EE: Have you travelled for work, and if so how often and to where?
CWJ: I have travelled UK wide for my work in my early career, and overseas (Middle East) work was available, but I elected not to work abroad.
In my early career, travel was frequent (at least monthly I would be expected to spend weeks away from home), in my later career it was more linked to client meetings and would be a day away from the office, but generally within a 1-2 hour distance.
EE: Have you had to move for work?
CWJ: I have moved for work, but it was my choice rather than enforced on me.
EE: What has been your best experience working as an engineer?
CWJ: My best experience as an engineer came rather early in my career. I was one of the design engineers for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. I was fortunate to work within an amazing design team, led by a phenomenally talented structural engineer who was progressive and took on board the experiences and capabilities of the different specialisms. I was also fortunate to work with a Construction and Client team who were equally progressive on a Construction Management scheme. It was collaborative and I look back on the project with fondness and pride.
Like most things geotechnical, I have no structure to show for the efforts, but on this project I have a basement that I designed, which is used by the theatre to realise their Shakespearean dreams.
EE: What has been your most challenging experience working as an engineer?
CWJ: My most challenging experience has been the balance of work and life as a parent. I am saddened that there does not seem to be the ability and capability within my discipline to cope with working parents, and as such there is an associated decline in female engineers past a certain grade.
EE: Do you feel women are treated equally to men in engineering?
CWJ: In short, No. I have had direct experience of unequal pay and unequal opportunity for progression in my career.
But then, I also do not believe it should be simplified to women against men… Although I have direct experience of institutionalized sexism, I have also been subjected to (I am not sure this is the correct generic term but) academic snobbery. I felt that I wasn’t taken seriously by my peers until I became a Chartered Engineer, and I knew this would be the case. Although being a Chartered Geologist is a professional accreditation it is not deemed to be “good enough” by some engineers.
EE: How do you balance career and home life?
CWJ: Before I elected to become self-employed I didn’t balance career and home life well at all.
Everything was fine up until children came into the equation. My husband and I coped well with me being away for work, because it was part of the career/job. But when children were brought in, I wanted to be involved in their lives, and my husband also had a career to progress. We also live away from family so I couldn’t lean on a family network to help support me.
EE: What do you consider the challenges and advantages of being a working mom?
CWJ: Challenges – the biggest challenge of being a working mother is the many hats you must wear and ensuring that you give adequate time to each. I am a mother, a wife, an engineer and a person. My biggest realization (after receiving life coaching) was that the order I referred to myself is entirely wrong. Although being a mother is important, I am a person first and IF that person is not happy or balanced or nourished then everything else fails.
Advantages – I am showing my children that you can be a parent and work. It is hard, and you must manage your expectations, BUT it is possible. Since going self-employed, I turned one of my creative hobbies that I used to re-find myself (and balance my working stresses) into a business opportunity. It is small, but I apply my engineering brain to sewing as a creative outlet.
There are only so many outfits I, and my family need, so now I sew and sell garments of clothing for children that have a STEM (and even a STEAM) twist to them. It is all still very young (and developing) as my engineering comes first and foremost, and because it is a sideline to engineering I have not spent as much time on it as a business. But I find pleasure in this side business that helps balance the complexities of engineering. Many people think it odd that I am an engineer and a seamstress, but I find they balance perfectly; both trades are creative and technical in their own little ways.
EE: Do you plan to ever return to engineering in the future?
CWJ: I am still a practicing engineer, but I do believe at some point in the distant future I may return to a regular employed position. However, for now I am enjoying being self-employed.
I am also looking forward to developing a working relationship with a local university where I am hoping to gain some teaching experience by lecturing on their civil engineering courses including a new post-graduate Masters in geotechnical engineering.
EE: What advice do you have for girls interested becoming an engineer?
CWJ: Engineering is for everyone and is a fantastic career for the problem-solving mind.
Don’t let horror stories of complex maths and it being a job for boys put you off, they are simply that horror stories.
Front load your career, and get accredited professionally as soon as you possibly can.
You will experience inequality but make that a positive motivator for progression and recognition.
You will find work life balance when being a parent difficult, but that is non-gender specific – being a working parent is difficult irrelevant of career path. Plan for it, embrace it and see it as a minor hurdle in a longer career.
And it doesn’t matter if you change tack a few times in your career. It makes you well rounded and more experienced. A working career is now 40+ years… you have enough time to get a few different variations including some time out in there. We have progressed past the one career for life situation of ye’ olden times.
EE: What advice do you have for working moms?
CWJ: Don’t beat yourself up.
It is bloody tough being a mother, and being a working mother even more so. If you want to take that career break for mental balance, in the words of Nike “JUST DO IT”. There is no loss of status, but there will be detrimental health affects of doing too much.
You are a person first, and if that person is tired, unbalanced and unhealthy, it will reflect on everything you are a part of.
EE: Would you still become an engineer if you could do it all over again?
CWJ: In a heartbeat. However, if I had known about engineering, I would possibly have taken the Civil Engineering undergraduate course, but I still think I would have become a Geotechnical Engineer. I love Mother Nature and natural processes too much.
EE: Any other information or stories you’d like to share?
Wow, that has to be one of the most real and honest interviews I have ever conducted. Charlotte talks about experiencing similar work situations to those that I faced as a new mom, and I know many other women out there can relate to them too.
I also liked her honesty about not feeling treated equally as a geologist vs. engineer. I can definitely understand that feeling and have seen similar bias in my work environment. It would benefit us all to think carefully before we project our preconceived notions about others expertise and skills onto them.
Charlotte had some great advice around self-care. She said “Although being a mother is important, I am a person first and IF that person is not happy or balanced or nourished then everything else fails.” I couldn’t agree more that it is so important to remember to take care of yourself, especially in the early years of motherhood. When you are balancing so many plates, it is so important not to let your own plate fall.
Finally, I want to give one little extra bit of love to Charlotte’s creative business, Moonflower. She has unique and exclusive STEM/STEAM themed fabric patterns that she uses to create the most adorable rompers and leggings for kids. Please go check out her page – I know you will love it!
Many thanks to Charlotte for sharing her engineering journey with us today! If you are interested in sharing your story in a future interview, please contact me.