TV host Dr. Shini Somara talks to Maryam Adeleke, a structural engineer who joined Arup’s engineering team as a graduate and has been working there for six years.
Shini Somara: How and why did you choose technology?
Maryam Adeleke: No one in my family is an engineer, so I wasn’t influenced by them. In fact, I didn’t even know such a career existed. Art and math had always been my favorite subjects. In my 10th grade math class, I often finished my work quickly, and one time I decided to pull out my art book and start drawing. My math teacher saw me and told me to put my art book down and then also said “you have to look at architecture”. I had never heard of architecture. After some work experience at an architectural firm, I realized that I like the built environment, but I wanted the work to be more technical in terms of math and physics. That’s how I discovered technology.
SS: What was it like to be an ethnic minority woman?
MA: It’s been very difficult. I had to get used to being the only one in the room. As a graduate, I found this inconvenient; felt insecure, out of place and often began to doubt himself. Today I am proud to be a black female engineer. Now when I shake off all the hardships of belonging to an ethnic minority and just do my job, I realize that I really like what I do. I wish that extra burden wasn’t there. If not, who knows how much more I could flourish.
SS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received professionally?
MA: When I first came to our London office, I was quite blown away by the return to the big city and its competitiveness. Several older women and I discussed the struggle of being a woman in a highly male-dominated profession, and I shared my fear of being mediocre. The best advice I got on this was that “there’s nothing wrong with being mediocre”. This advice was important to me because I think we live in a society where social media urges us to have our names in the light; everyone strives for excellence. While that’s an acceptable ambition, I think it can become unhealthy if you put too much pressure on yourself.
“The best advice I’ve been given is that there’s nothing wrong with being mediocre.”
SS: What has been your most humbling experience?
MA: I was born and raised in a municipal estate until I went to college. Some of the people I grew up with made it to Russell Group universities and we often said “we made it out of the ‘endz'”. In other words, we studied, got a job and moved to a fancy place. But I actually moved back to my town hall, and that was a humbling experience, because growing up, I’d always wanted to escape from where I came from.
Now that I’m back, I love it. At first I wondered why I went back, but now I’ve learned to love my roots and as a structural engineer I understand the bittersweetness of gentrification of such areas from an interesting perspective.
SS: What would you say your superpower is?
MA: I’d say my superpower is that I’m very empathetic and interact well with people. I can read people very well, which helps to defuse tense situations, perhaps when two engineers collide. I think people find it easy to communicate with me because I’m emotionally attuned, which I think is sorely needed in this industry.
SS: What are your perspectives on equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I)?
MA: You can always add more diversity to a company, but hired minorities need to feel like they belong. When I first entered my workplace, I felt like I had been hired to fill a quota. But then we started having more corporate conversations about how minorities can feel more equal and more involved. On a personal level, these conversations have given me the confidence to be more outspoken.
In general, ED&I is doing well. Everyone, myself included, should keep the conversations going and support those who will be entering the profession.
Institutions also talk more about ED&I. It is a very complex and layered subject with many unknowns. For example, people of BAME origin make up 25 percent of engineers who graduate, but only 9 percent of the profession. We don’t quite understand why yet. But the fact that this statistic exists is encouraging because we can begin to identify and address problems. Change is also happening because I think people are gradually starting to recognize their privilege and use this knowledge to help.
SS: How important have role models and mentors been to your career?
MA: Super important. Ideally, I would have loved to be accompanied by someone who has overcome the same experiences I have, but I have realized that on a human level we can always learn from similar struggles, even if they are not identical.