International Women in Engineering Day – Naomi Lee, Associate Director

As an Associate Director at our Stoke-on-Trent office, Naomi Lee works as part of our Geotechnical Team. For International Women in Engineering Day 2017, she outlines a brief career history and talks about a notable mining project in Kyrgyzstan whilst working at Wardell Armstrong.

I joined Wardell Armstrong in 2004 as a keen young mining geologist. I arrived with a years’ experience from a previous mining consultancy firm based in the West Midlands, and dust on my shoes from 6 months backpacking around New Zealand and Australia. I had a 2:1 in geology and a MSc from Camborne School of Mines and was eager to get stuck in and get some site experience on geotechnical projects.

One of the first projects I worked on at Wardell Armstrong was an open pit gold mine in Kyrgyzstan. I was determined to show that I was capable of being on site long term overseas, that I had the suitable skills and experience, and I could get the job done. After much discussion, it was agreed that I could go to site and off I went to trudge around the Kyrgyz mountain tops for a few weeks.

The trip was a success. I learnt many things including Russian for a “only a little bit of vodka please”, working while in a storm in the Kyrgyz mountains isn’t fun and it doesn’t matter now many things are on the menu or what you ask for, they’ll serve you want they’ve got. But most importantly I showed that I could do the job and could work day to day with in-country drilling crews, mining engineers and local officials. Yes, you should accept that as the lone woman working on a remote site things may be different. For instance, in Kyrgyzstan the local men didn’t like to shake my hand, they would nod their head in greeting instead. When I asked my colleagues why they hadn’t told me this bit of local custom, they replied “we didn’t know we’ve never had to deal with it before”.

Since then I’ve been to many countries around the world. I’ve seen the number of women in our team grow and at times outnumber the men, and at other times I’ve been the only woman engineer on site. I worked in a silver mine in Siberia 12 hours north of Magadan and a gold mine in Burkina Faso based out of an old French Foreign Legion camp site about 100km south of Timbuktu. I’ve travelled from an iron ore mine in Northern Norway above the Arctic Circle with 24 hours’ sunlight, to a mine site in the Colombian forests (with only a 24 hour stop off between the two to change my cold weather site gear for my hot weather gear). There are local customs and attitudes that you must be aware of and be respectful of while still getting the job done. It is different having a woman on site, with different challenges and considerations, and as with any deployment to site, the health and safety considerations must be thought out in full. The right engineer with the right skills and aptitude for the job, then it doesn’t matter if they are a man or a woman, they’ll get the job done.

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