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Sarah Shanahan, Director of Operations at Jacobs tells us about her career in a traditionally male dominated world

Category: Health and Wellbeing, Gender Equality, Empowering individuals, Workplace Inclusion, Gender Balance, Staff Testimonial, project manager, Women in Engineering, Female Engineers, empowering careers, Female leadership, Male dominated Industry, Gender Inclusion


The tale of an ambitious young geologist, a blurry-eyed Project Manager mum of two wild boys, and an empowered Director of Operations




The question is: how do you define a satisfying career? It’s a deeply personal question, but it’s one that we all ask ourselves at least once in our lives. Is it status, wealth, or job titles? This story will show you a different side, one of health, happiness, and hiking. Yes, hiking.

But we’re skipping ahead here. Like any good story, it starts with a universal question and has plenty of interesting characters, including three feisty main roles (hint: they’re all me) and many more supporting actors. Crucially, it’s also about a journey.  

This plot begins 29 years ago when I started my life-long career. I started as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Geologist, fresh from the University of Glasgow.  

After leaving the lecture halls, I dived straight into the male-dominated world of mineral extraction, but I was truly lucky to meet a boss named Adrian. He was an intelligent man who upheld the highest technical standards and had a razor-sharp mind that was wide-open to innovation. He inspired our small team, expertly tip-toed the tightrope between boss and trusted friend and gave us room to grow. We laughed and handled problems as a group, and I felt supported and encouraged at every step – in particular, through my application for Chartership.


Lesson one: great careers are shaped by strong leaders who put people first.

Thankfully, Adrian was just one of my mentors and coaches. I’ve been privileged to have many people, throughout my 22 years with Jacobs who have supported, influenced and inspired me to grow and take opportunities. Out of all of those talented people (and Jacobs is filled with them), two stand out thanks to their hard-earned wisdom.

The first is Gus, and he told me the following: ‘Always employ people who are better than me’.

The second person is Catriona. Her sage advice: ‘It’s not about the hours you sit at a desk, but the contribution that you make.’ This isn’t just about KPIs and performance statistics – how do you make your colleagues and clients feel?

I’m still in touch with these wise people today, and both lessons still provide daily rewards.


Lesson two: diversity is both a teacher and a success multiplier.

Leaders and mentors are not your only source of wisdom. One of my biggest learning curves was discovering that the more diverse your team, the more creative and successful your outcomes will be – it’s that simple. It comes from having different perspectives, backgrounds, skillsets and voices, and it breaks down any echo chambers. It really tests the who, what and why behind what you’re doing, and it uncovers better ways of doing things. The more diverse your team is, the more you’ll learn about truly inclusive work cultures and team leadership, and crucially, about yourself.


Lesson three: career progression is not a straight climb.

From Senior Geologist to Director of Operations, there have been many lumps, bumps and potholes and detours in my professional and personal career road, but I can honestly say every single one has made me grow and develop.

The tough times have provided the most significant lessons, and career changes have injected the excitement and variety. Together, they’ve offered the actual formula for career growth. A smooth, straight road just wouldn’t provide the same satisfaction, lessons or excitement!


Lesson four: your next adventure will be your greatest one.

Enthusiasm, curiosity, and a healthy sense of adventure are undervalued qualities in the workplace. If you want to have an agile career, they are crucial ingredients in the recipe – along with the question: what if? And then, more importantly: why not?

You don’t have to stay in the same market, job type or function. Even if your next opportunity doesn’t seem like a 100% perfect fit for you, give it a go and put yourself forward. With every new role, you earn new, transferable skills and confidence that you’ll carry into your next challenge. Every single experience will pay off if you have the right attitude and willingness to try something different. Just like the diversity of thought in lesson three, curiosity is a true gamechanger in crafting varied experiences and rich careers.

I’ve had the good fortune to experience a truly agile career at Jacobs. Through the mentors I have had, the people who have surrounded me and the obstacles life has thrown in my direction, I have grown and evolved into my current self and my role at work.

The motivation for this blog: I’m excited that now I have a formal mechanism to support those who embrace the idea of an agile career and the lifelong learning that can offer for growth.

The story is mine, but the words are from Arthur Jones - a talented colleague and valued support.


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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email [email protected] for more information.

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