As a Chartered Engineer with more than 25 years experience, Julie Raine of Army Bay says she enjoys sharing ‘the advice I’d give my former self’ with other women. This week she was presented with an award by Zonta, who named her among its 50 Women of Achievement, alongside Helen Clarke, Louise Nicholas and Dame Silvia Cartwright. She told Terry Moore about how a girl from a coal mining village in England made it to the top in her chosen career.
At the age of 17, when I started working in engineering, I was faced with a lot of men in their dingy offices smoking, and topless girly calendars on the wall. So one day I went in early with my black marker pen and drew bikinis on the pictures – from January to December. They took it as a laugh, but it also raised awareness. Five years later, in another company, I again found those calendars so this time I bought a male version, pinned it up and carried on working. The guys took one look and I’ve never known a company policy change so quick.
I left school not knowing what I wanted to do, except that I wasn’t going into a ‘girly’ career. I wasn’t some bright spark kid and never pushed myself, so I got to the end of school with just the basics. My best friend went on a secretarial course and rather than sit at home I did that too. My tutors noticed that I did lots of sketching and sent me to a placement with a mining engineering company in the village where I lived. I had to do half a day’s secretarial work, unfortunately, but the exciting bit was that for the other half I was in the drawing office as a tracer.
After a few months they offered me a job in the drawing office. I was given drawings of drilling machinery and would trace over them with the right tunnel diameter and machinery for each different job. I hadn’t been able to do technical drawing at school because boys did technical drawing and woodwork and girls did baking and sewing; I was never going to make a career out of baking, that’s for sure! After a few months, I found a college course in technical drawing. They told me it was part of an engineering course and that I’d be the only girl. And I said ‘that’s fine’.
I had to do a foundation level course, then a series of qualifications – it took me 12 years to get my degree, while working. They wrote an article in an engineering magazine about my dedication. I had a goal and just kept going, waiting to see if I started failing. I worked really hard, while all my friends were out drinking, because whereas at school I was working to please the teacher or my parents, here it was for me. I graduated with an honours degree in Civil Engineering and became a Chartered Engineer at the age of 35. Apart from one tutor, there were no issues with being the only female on the course. That tutor was patronising and even tried to stop me getting honours. I took it to the Union and won and carried on. He thought I couldn’t do it, so I thought ‘watch me’. I don’t like confrontation – I’d rather do things in a humorous way – but I’ve always felt that what’s good enough for them is good enough for me.
My passion is transportation and safety and that began when my older sister, Sharon, died at the age of 21 in a traffic accident. I was 19 and working for the local authority as a highway engineer. We were looking at local black spots and I was part of a team that had to put traffic lights at the junction where my sister had been killed. Before moving to NZ, five years ago, I worked in Abu Dhabi, on highways and transportation. I worked on one of the Palm Islands, two artificial islands on the coast of Dubai. My job was to design transport to and from the island and infrastructure for buses and trams. I also worked on a desert island owned by a sheik who created an Eco Safari attraction. I worked out a transportation system based on the London underground, with coloured routes so it was easy to follow if you couldn’t speak the language. Most amazing of all was working on the infrastructure for the world’s first carbon neutral city, Masdar, in Abu Dhabi. Travel is via personal pods and it has a technology university but it’s so ‘Big Brother’ – individuals can’t change the temperature or anything in their own apartment: there’s a monument that flashes green when people have been ‘good’ and owners can work out which apartment hasn’t been eco-friendly. Once I’d ventured out of the UK there was no way I was going back. The NZTA was doing its roads of national significance, so I transferred here.
When I had my two daughters, I took minimal time off. With Lucy, now aged 11, I had her on Monday and was back at work Friday for a meeting. With Lynda, now four, I took a week and a half off. An au pair and family support made that possible. At the time no one could talk me out of it, because I was going up the ladder, I’d studied for 12 years to get there and wasn’t going to stop. Someone suggested I should be at home bonding with my baby and my response was that fathers go back to work after a birth in a couple of days and what’s good enough for them is good enough for me. I got quality time with the children rather than have them follow me while I did the shopping or cleaning. Statistically women, especially in engineering, graduate with the men and work for five plus years. Then women start a family, take maternity leave and come back at a lower level – this is one reason there are so few women on company Boards. At the moment around six percent of engineers in NZ are women. I’m part of a group that holds competitions for primary schools based around building things. The more that we do with schools, the faster things will change. Engineering is such a good career because of all the different specialist areas and the chance to have a career worldwide.
I like to mentor females in the industry who are younger then me because I know what they’re facing, including being bullied. In one job, the boss liked me and the rest of the office didn’t, so as soon as he was at a meeting I was in for it. They would keep on at me but I wouldn’t cry in front of them; I used to drive home in tears. They would criticise and hide manuals and files so I couldn’t do my work. I didn’t tell my boss because it was my first experience of bullying and I didn’t know what to do. I thought my boss might say ‘toughen up’. I learnt from it and later, in another job, when a guy started doing the same thing I stopped it immediately. After the bullying you try to fit in and I noticed that my wardrobe was full of trouser suits, shirts and flat shoes; I changed that and wear a dress and heels every day. In the past I also tried to fit in with male colleagues by talking about football, which I really had no interest in. I watched the highlights to get key bits of information so I could chat about it on Monday.
In 2012 I, and four other women, launched the National Association of Women in Construction and I talk to its members about my experiences. When I was about 24 I knew I’d have to get up and speak as part of my job so I joined amateur dramatics with the idea that if I could act and sing, I could do a power point or workshop. In the Middle East it was hard to get the men to even listen to a woman, so I had to know my topic backwards and be confident. Now I have my own company, JR Talks, running workshops and talking about goal setting and work strategies. I’m also doing more for Shine, which helps victims of domestic abuse. My mum was young when she had us, and in a violent relationship so I’m keen to do whatever I can to help others in that situation.