Womens Engineering Society: Inspiring women as engineers, scientists and technical leaders

Elizabeth Rickard

Elizabeth Rickard

I’m Liz, co-owner, Head Engineer and Financial Director at Highwire Ltd, a specialist company providing safe access at height. Basically we stop people falling and injuring themselves when they need to maintain or clean parts of buildings, or machinery that are high up.Liz Rickard

I also sit on the British Safety Industry Federation height safety group working to raise standards and awareness within the sector.

Outside of work I am Mum to a 9 year old son. When I have spare time my interests are fashion, music, art and design.

My Journey
I grew up in a costal town in Suffolk and went to the local comprehensive school. To be honest I did not like school very much. I enjoyed learning new things when they interested me but lots of the lessons seemed boring, and it often seemed like the worst behaved kids ruled the place.

When I started senior school I did not think I was very good at maths because I could not remember all my times tables by heart. I was always last out of the class because I could not remember the answers quickly enough.

When we started to learn algebra and problem solving, every thing changed for me. I found I loved the fact it could really help me to understand how so many things in the world worked and best of all I could use it to solve real problems. It was as if I had discovered a new and perfect language, one that also had the power to change how we see the world.

About the same time (I suppose I was about 12 or 13) I found was good at art. Before then all my attempts had holes worn in the paper and paint mixed to a sludge grey mess. I suddenly found I could sketch.

When I got to 16 I did not know what I wanted to do, other than that I was determined to go to university. At first I wanted to study fine art but my Dad pointed out wisely that this was unlikely to lead to a job. He also said I could pick up art at any time in my life, but it would be much harder to pick up mathematics and science. He was right.

I studied maths, physics and chemistry at A level and gained a place at Salford University on a Civil Engineering degree. I loved being at university in a city like Manchester and especially enjoyed all my applied mathematics subjects. I funded my degree with waitressing and bar work.

I graduated during the last recession and jobs where not easy to come by. Determined to stay in Manchester, I took a job as an assistant photographer at Granada Studio Tours. I spent the hottest summer on record for Manchester dressed as an Edwardian woman wearing a huge wool skirt! I figured it would be easier to get a job I wanted, if I had a job.

I wrote to all the engineering consultancies in Manchester begging them to give me a chance, and finally on the 11th of September I started work as graduate engineers for Curtains consulting. I spent 8 years gaining a wide range of experience working for structural consultancies in Manchester before being appointed Financial Director and Head Engineer at Highwire Ltd. I have now worked in the construction industry for 17 years.

Why did you become an Engineer?
When I say what I do for a living people are often shocked and say ‘what made someone like you become an engineer?’

For a start, engineers are all different and come with all sorts of talents and back grounds. I have known engineers with amazing artistic and literary talents, and who are patient teachers.

But what inspired me to become an engineer? Dick Brunner’s book  ‘Miffy in the snow’Miffy.

Miffy built a house to save a frozen bird.  As a very little girl I was deeply impressed by this simple example of  engineering changing a  life for the better, and the fact that Miffy was a girl too, even if she was also a rabbit!

Engineers are behind everything we take for granted in our civilised world.  In short it makes our lives better and easier. So from my perspective, it is a natural field for women to be in. It is an extension of what women have been doing since the beginning of time.

What do I love about my job?
Every day is very different - I wear lots of ‘hats’. I enjoy problem solving and most of my work has a foundation in applied mathematics. As my career has progressed though, more and more of my time is spent communicating with others.

I also deal with communications, new technologies and people all over the world.  

I am passionate about height safety, raising standards and bridging the gap between the engineering disciplines.

Structural engineers like me, mainly deal with statics because it is important the things we design stay still. Height safety systems involve dynamics, which is things that move and a new challenge to me.

When you are at school learning is on tap but as you get older it is difficult to find people to learn from, you are more grateful for their expertise and time. I am always learning.

I love to see the results of our work looking good and saving lives. I can look at an important building and say we did that bit! Wow!

What’s it like being a Mum and an Engineer?
When I first found I was having a baby I was scared as I was so used to the world of work. But everyone is  a bit frightened when they have a baby; it’s such a big change. Children teach you a great deal, and give you a strength and confidence you thought you never had. It can feel like hard work some days, and I end up working odd hours to get everything done. But I live every day feeling how lucky I am to have the chance to do both. Sadly many women all over the world do not have the choices I have had. I hope in a very small way I can make the world a little better for my child and his generation. I will never be perfect,  I can only do my best.

My thoughts on Engineering

  • The world we live in relies on engineers to exist, engineering is so important.
  • It is not dry and boring!  It gives you the tools to change the world you live in.
  • It needs the thoughts and input of both men and women to build a sustainable future. Do you want to shape the future?

Concerns young women may have

  • Firstly you only have one life, so if you want to do something go for it!
  • Do you get dirty and cold? I really do not like getting dirty, or cold and I am also scared of heights! Most of my work is done from my desk, or in meetings. There are lots of different jobs in engineering and technology. One of my friends loved working outside, and chose to be a site engineer.
  • Am I scared of working with so many men? Men are just like women, most are nice and a few are not so nice. In most of the places I have worked there have been other women working there too, so it was not scary and I did not feel lonely. However very few of the women were engineers, so I did miss having a  mentor that I could really identify with. My advice would be to join WES and find other women in your field you can share experiences with and learn from.
  • Building sites can be very male dominated. Often the men are shocked and a bit scared to deal with a woman. Once they see that you respect their skills, they will respect you in return.
  • It takes a whole team of people to create a building and all their different skills are important. There is no point designing a building without people to dig the foundations or lay the bricks. Listening to people with practical skills helps you to become a better engineer and gain their trust and respect.

I hope you have enjoyed reading my story.

Liz Rickard, MWES

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