Sustainability and environmental manager, Camila Bernal, wanted to get out from behind a desk, pull on her boots and get onsite at a construction project so she could really "make a difference." With Laing O'Rourke, she's done just that.
She joined the company in 2011 seeking a new challenge after several years working as an environmental consultant in London: “I wanted a more hands-on opportunity to implement my knowledge of sustainability and the environment. I thought joining a construction company, on the other side of the fence, was a good way to do that.”
Perception different from reality
And even though construction is thought of as a male-dominated occupation, she feels there is a misconception around the opportunities available in the industry and hopes that more women start to see the wide range of professional career choices now available: “It’s the challenge I wanted, it has been fantastic.”
With International Women’s Day, which celebrates the achievements of women, on 8 March, she adds: “The perception of construction – that it’s dangerous, dirty and male-dominated – is so different from reality. Okay, it is still mostly men in the industry but that is changing fast and in my view there are lots of opportunities for women now in construction and engineering."
Camila is proof, if it were needed, that women can succeed in construction – using her position to influence another important element of industry: sustainability. The environmental and sustainability strategy she developed for the Heathrow Terminal 2A development won the Constructing Excellence sustainability category award in 2014 and other plaudits besides.
She has also been a major contributor to tenders for high-profile projects like the Thames Tideway Tunnel and is now a member of the Engineering Excellence Group, with responsibilities that include embedding sustainability in Laing O’Rourke’s innovation agenda. She says: “I now have a really good platform to explain to people why sustainability is so important – and why it benefits not only the environment but the company too.”
Camila is originally from Colombia. At university in the country’s capital Bogotá she first gained a degree in biology and then, in 2006, completed a master’s degree in environmental engineering. She worked as an environmental consultant for the Colombian Civil Aviation Authority, where she was involved with efforts to monitor the bird-strike risk at airports. She then moved to Ecuador, where she was again an environmental consultant working in the oil and gas sector.
Her move to the UK came in 2008 when she joined London-based engineering consultant, Mouchel Limited. Her responsibilities there included managing environmental and sustainability assessments for transport infrastructure projects and for the Ministry of Defence and local authorities.
Influence from inside
Camila says: “I studied biology for five years and I’m really passionate about nature, about ecology – but I thought I needed to be where the action was, which is construction and engineering. That’s why I did a master’s in environmental engineering.
“I like to be inside a company in order to influence rather than outside as an activist or something like that. Sometimes there are challenges but that is good motivation to push me on.”
Moving to Laing O'Rourke was a “great opportunity.” She adds: "I saw the potential to push sustainability and environmental issues up the agenda – and the chance to help Laing O’Rourke strengthen its approach in these areas.”
Meeting the president
At the end of March, Camila's hard work and talent will bring further reward when she returns to Bogotá in her home country of Colombia, where she will meet the president as one of 2014’s Top 100 Colombians. This is an initiative to recognise successful Colombians living overseas and, not surprisingly, Camila admits: “I am really excited, I can’t wait.”
She adds: “The idea is to inspire other Colombians and that’s what I want to do in all areas of my life – as a Colombian, as a woman in construction, as an environmentalist – to try to be a role model and inspire people."