Women In Tunneling is featuring exemplary female representatives of the tunneling industry in order to amplify their experiences in the underground field. In June 2022, we introduce you to Lizan Gilbert, Vice President, Hill International
- What is your actual involvement in the tunneling business?
I have 22 years in the industry. I started out as a Geotech in the field doing site investigations and writing GDR/GBRs for tunnel projects. I moved into project and program management of tunnel projects spending where I connected with a self-perform tunnel contractor. For the past 11.5 years I was part of a team that built tunnels around the country. In that role, I led the front end of finding opportunities, pursuing and winning the projects, and getting them started working through the engineering designs and project set-up.
- How were you introduced to the tunnel industry, and why did you decide to pursue it as a career?
As a young Geotech I worked on a variety of projects and was happy to have tunnels included in that list. Tunnels have always been a part of my career – if you’re in tunneling, you are part of a small group and that experience is valuable. When I switched to the self-perform side, I did that because I thought it would be fun! The equipment was incredibly interesting and the work that tunneling contractors did seemed exiting and unique. It was! I love this industry and recognize the value of the work we do.
- People outside of the industry don’t tend to understand exactly what the job entails. What is it like to work as an engineer on underground projects?
Being an engineer on an underground project can mean a lot of different things. Because underground projects are unique, even between projects, the responsibilities change quite a bit. However, the engineering generally involves some assessment of the excavation and support approach – how will the contractor advance and support as they go. Everything related to this is required, instrumentation, excavation plans, support designs, equipment, haul off, and final lining. It is really very interesting work because ground conditions dictate and will generally shift as the excavation progresses, so everything around that shifts. There are also the works that are typically associated with the project – like a treatment plant or pump station or ancillary structure, and the engineering on these requires collaboration with a civil team including an architect. Learning how they approach their work is really critical and interesting to pulling all of the pieces together. It’s a great job and a great career.
- What professional achievement are you most proud of?
From a technical perspective, I was working on a project in Dallas that had a failure. The engineering that I had to do was critical and under intense time constraints. I designed and we built a plug that stabilized the tunnel and mitigated all future flooding within 2 days. From a leadership perspective, I appreciate that I have supported a number of younger engineers find their path. This can be a difficult industry to navigate and being approachable and trusted to give guidance is an honor to me.
- Even though the number of women has been increasing over the years, the tunneling industry is still considered a male oriented environment. What do you think are some of the factors or obstacles—either societal or sometimes even self-imposed— that deter women from entering the underground career force? And what can we do as an industry or as a society to encourage more women to join?
The industry is shifting and that is a good thing. Some of the challenges include the unique nature of tunneling – there is one project in a location so relocating or traveling is generally required. This makes establishing a balanced life very challenging – it’s doable, but pretty tough some days. Also, being different from the majority of your colleagues presents inherent difficulties that can sometimes be hard to really define. What we talk about, how we interact, how we deal with stress, these are different. Learning how to bridge the gaps can be challenging because it takes a continuous level of assertiveness that isn’t always easy to muster. But what is important to remember is that our involvement makes projects and the industry significantly better! When we participate, the outcomes reflect a diversity of thought and approach. And last, we are good at this! Our engineering minds are able to incorporate aspects that are missed when we aren’t there.
- How do you tap into your inner leader? What advice would you give on having the courage to honor your voice and to speak out and contribute your influence?
Leading isn’t easy the first few times you do it. It can be a surprise actually that your voice is the one driving the direction! I say to myself quite often – be the change you want to see in the world (by Gandhi). I muster the energy for all of those that need me to step into the leadership position now, so that there is a shift today that will alter the path of tomorrow. Someone has to lead, why shouldn’t it be me and you?
- Looking back, what two pieces of advice do you have for your younger self?
Be who YOU are. This was given to me just in the past couple of years. But it really has resonated. Who I am and my skillset is what I know and what is valuable. I don’t need to conjure someone else or some alternative persona that isn’t comfortable. I am good being just who I am – outspoken sometimes, an observer others, just me. Second and maybe the greatest growing I’ve done through my career, don’t react just yet. I am a “step first, think second” kind of person. Thank goodness maturity has allowed me to pause for a half-second before speaking or acting. This has allowed the dust to settle just a tad so that I see what the landscape actually is before moving forward. It’s kept me out of a lot of arguments that just went away!
- What do you hope the future holds for yourself, for the industry, and/or for other women who will be a part of tunneling & underground construction?
I’d like to see women enter the industry and stay. I’d like for the challenges that currently make it seem impossible to stay get addressed. Like the work-life balance, this will be a huge benefit to everyone. And I’d like to see more women feel empowered to find their voices because they know they’ll be heard. Taking the first step to speak up is challenging enough; we need to match that effort with acknowledgement and support.
Do you know someone who would fit on this list of exemplary #womenwhotunnel? Nominate them by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org