There are people who love their job, and then there’s engineer and project manager Linda Miller. If you’ve seen any of SBS series London’s Super Tunnel, she’s the one with seemingly boundless enthusiasm about a transport construction project. Her passion is infectious; try watching London’s Super Tunnel and not getting excited about the revolutionary new train line being built.
As Miller talks to us from Sydney, where’s she working on another major rail project, the city’s new Metro line, she’s as enthusiastic as you’d expect. It’s easy to see why she’s stayed in the industry for more than 25 years. And in that time, she’s gone from being a solitary female figure in an almost exclusively male industry to seeing major changes, not only in gender representation but also the way her field operates, and been able to inspire future generations of engineers – male and female.
What was it like doing the job you clearly do so well on camera? Did you enjoy it?
Yes and no. I’m very passionate about telling people about amazing engineering projects. Getting the opportunity to say, “This is exciting and important, and requires great teamwork” – I loved doing that and hearing from schools saying, “I know what doctors and teachers do, but I never knew what engineers do, and now that I do, how exciting is that?”
I also had a lot of my guys come in and say, “Hey, my grandma loves you.” That was so nice. The hard bit is that it’s all real time and we had some serious issues to resolve, and having that play out while you’re on camera was terrifying some days.
Having you on the show does make a potentially dry topic relatable.
I did try and behave in a way that’s authentic, and I do love what I do. I often say about engineering, “If you want to affect millions of people’s lives, think about engineering and all of the people that will be able to move more swiftly – get to school, get to work, and for those people who may not be able to drive for whatever reason, it’s the difference between being imprisoned and having freedom.” I see a huge moral purpose, beyond just convenience, and being great for the environment and business, of it all.
I think having more women in the industry over the years has dramatically improved it.
You work in a male-dominated field. How have the construction and engineering industries changed over the decades?
I felt a lot lonelier as a woman when I started my career. There were very few women engineers. I was also in the military and one of the first women allowed to go to Westpoint Academy. Not that I didn’t get along with people – I did – but there was a great sense of loneliness.
The construction industry in particular felt a harsher place to be 20 to 25 years ago. Caring about people’s stress or mental health or life outside of work was a lot lower, and there was a lot more shouting and being angry as your normal state of coming in to work every day.
That’s changed with having a better mixture [of people] in teams and caring about how we communicate with each other in a way that’s professional and civil. In the last five to 10 years, there’s been a serious emphasis shift in construction, engineering and transport about letting people’s different ways of solving problems and different styles of communication, whether that’s cultural or gender, be valued. It’s far and away a happier place to be with much better understanding that putting people in negative, stressful situations for 10 hours a day is not good. I think having more women in the industry over the years has dramatically improved it.
In the early days, did you feel you had to behave like “one of the boys”?
I did. I remember getting advice when I was younger, saying, “Listen, if you’re going to stand a chance, you have to look and act as much like a man as you can possibly muster.” To this day, I’m ruined fashion-wise. I wear the most boring clothes you can possibly imagine.
It cracks me up when I see young woman engineers and they are very beautifully made up. In the first season of London’s Super Tunnel, I purposely picked a young woman on my team who is so intelligent and capable as a civil engineer, and really unafraid of looking very much like a woman – and that’s a great culture change.
Still to this day, people kid me that I stand with my feet shoulder-width apart and my hands on my hips. Part of that is military training and part of it is my brain playing back that advice of: “Learn the football scores, memorise the baseball stats, stand this way, dress this way and every once in a while, turn and spit.” I’m very happy to say it’s not a necessary element by a mile for success [now], but I remain affected.
I look forward to when we have women operators, carpenters and welders, but that day is never going to happen if we keep using language that says 'you’re not welcome'.
As you’ve progressed in your career, how easy has it been to establish authority over men?
As I have gotten older and more senior, I have developed more strategies for understanding the conflict that some men may have in having a woman boss. Maybe they think I’m going to be exceptionally hard on them or discriminate against them, or they’re just not comfortable with taking direction from me. My mode has been to go the extra mile in establishing a one-on-one relationship and I can work through [their concerns]. It does work out often in the end. I’ve had lots of people say, “I’ve never had a boss do that before.”
When I was younger, I was more intimidated by hearing something that was not gender appropriate and feeling unsure about how to speak up about it, and now I ruthlessly speak up. I get that I am senior enough and if there’s a woman nearby who’s 20 or 30 and feels less sure about speaking up, then I’m doing it for everybody. I don’t give any ground. And sometimes I’ll have a male colleague say to me, “My wife works in this industry and thanks for that.”
In the construction industry, there’s long been language that excludes women. For a long time, we’ve called our workforce “the men”, and I’m like, “How about ‘people’?” And sometimes people say to me, “Yeah, but they are all men,” and I say, “I look forward to the day when we have women operators, carpenters and welders, but that day is never going to happen if we keep using language that says ‘you’re not welcome’ or ‘you’re invisible’.”
It must be very gratifying as someone who did start out feeling lonely and excluded to help re-shape things.
It’s great, and I’ve only done it in little pockets here and there – I hardly think of myself as an industry changer – but it has certainly been a hope of mine that wherever I go, I make it a little bit easier for there to be diversity coming along behind me.
Watch London’s Super Tunnel at SBS On Demand