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Women in construction: spotlight on Iconic's Tabindah Akhtar

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My first encounter with civil engineering was at the age of 14 when I picked up a university prospectus for Imperial College and first read about civil engineering; the 'art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man'. 

Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard, France


A world of opportunity

At school, I had an enthusiasm for English Literature alongside a keen appreciation for the application of maths, science and technology. Civil engineering seemed like an intriguing world where the sciences and arts collided.  Most appealingly, it provided a route into development work overseas, where my passion for humanitarian work was born.


Having set my mind on pursuing a degree in engineering, I took A’ Levels in Physics, Maths and English and was thrilled to get a place at Southampton University on the Masters in Environmental Engineering, a 4 year degree course.  The first year was common with the Civil Engineering degree, however the Environmental course specialised in water and wastewater subjects, which would be essential for overseas development work. 

Hartley Library, University of Southampton


Studying Engineering

I loved studying at Southampton, a campus university with an excellent - and friendly - Engineering department, and great industry links.


There were around 100 students on the civil engineering course, of which just 10% were female. It was great preparation for the male dominated world of construction.  We all had 9-5 lectures together, except for Wednesday afternoons when – like most universities - everyone had time off for sports, offering a much needed break for the engineers.  A benefit of spending so much time at lectures together was a great sense of camaraderie on the course and lifelong friendships were forged – a theme which has continued throughout my career in construction, a relatively small industry where paths will often cross with former university/work colleagues.


Fast forwarding to my third year, I decided to take a year out to gain some international experience with the Overseas Development Programme, a Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) initiative which gives undergraduates the opportunity to undertake development work whilst providing the host country with a semi-trained professional. 

A view of the sea and sky with a Fujian island in the middle ground

Volunteering overseas

I spent a wonderful year in the Fiji Islands (yes, it is a developing country!), working at the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC) with a group of very talented local and foreign scientists and engineers. It was a memorable year where I gained invaluable work experience, renewed my passion for the humanitarian sector, made some wonderful friends and, obviously, enjoyed island hopping.


I returned to the UK to complete the Masters course. It was an intensive year but great preparation for working in the construction industry as the syllabus covered subjects such as construction management and two group projects - one civils and another multi-disciplinary - to replicate real life engineering projects.


A career in construction

After graduating, due to a change in my personal circumstances, I chose to remain in the UK for work and switched to a corporate career path.  Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked as a project manager within the water, aviation and financial sectors – both as a consultant and client side – and have been privileged to be involved with some prestigious and technically challenging projects, including maintenance of the Thames Barrier and a range of infrastructure projects at Heathrow Airport.

The Thames barrier at sunset


Overall, my experience as an Asian, hijab wearing woman in the construction industry has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, as a minority in an industry with a huge skills shortage, I have felt welcomed into the fold as engineers genuinely love sharing their passion with others.  This is not to say that I haven’t experienced discrimination - I have – some overt but mostly in the form of unconscious biases, an area where more needs to be done if we are to make greater progress in recruiting and retaining women within the construction industry.  Yet, this has been vastly outweighed by the support of wonderful allies throughout my career who have provided mentorship and opportunities, countering any negative experiences.


Some stand-out examples of positive leadership were at Heathrow Airport where the CEO at the time, John Holland-Kaye, promoted female talent within the senior leadership team, and that was reflected at all levels of the organisation.  I was fortunate enough to be part of some great teams including Asset Management, a high performing team formed of mainly young, female engineers and rated as the ‘happiest’ team in the department, testament to the inspiring leadership of the Asset Management Director, Gareth Vest.


A terminal building at Heathrow Airport. An aeroplane is reflected in the glass

Encouraging other women in construction

In my current role as a consultant PM, I am fortunate enough to be working for a forward thinking business, Iconic Project Management, whose founders, Lizzie & Darren Hewitt, are passionate about providing opportunity in the construction industry to young talent.  Since I joined Iconic a few months ago, I have been encouraged to represent the business at several careers fairs at local schools promoting construction management to students. 

I attended a careers fair this week at a local college although found very few students were taking STEM subjects. This is another area that needs to be tackled, perhaps by incorporating subjects like structures / hydraulics into Maths and Physics in the early educational years to familiarise students with engineering concepts.

Iconic is also passionate about community work and I am excited to have been given the opportunity to fulfil my original passion for development work alongside my day job, possibly through volunteering with RedR (Engineers for Disaster Relief), an amazing organisation that sends engineers to less developed countries to help re-build essential infrastructure in the immediate aftermath of a disaster (for more information, check out

A town razed to the ground by a hurricane


The highlights in my career have been working on some amazing projects alongside some exceptionally talented individuals, and the camaraderie in a small industry where the vast majority are passionate about engineering.

Whilst there is much work to be done to encourage more female students to take STEM subjects and to tackle unconscious biases within the industry, on balance, my experience has been an overwhelmingly positive one.  So, if you are inclined towards the 'art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man' - and you happen to be a woman – my advice would be to go for it.

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Tabindah Akhtar

Tabindah has over 20 years’ experience leading projects within the infrastructure, aviation and commercial real estate sectors, both in the UK and internationally. She has worked for client and consultant organisations, and particularly enjoys the challenge of delivering complex projects with a diverse range of stakeholders.

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