Women in Tunneling

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Sanja Zlatanic, SVP - June 2019's #WomenWhoTunnel

By Molly Burford posted 06-20-2019 12:30 PM


Each month, Women In Tunneling will feature an exemplary female member of the tunneling industry. For June 2019, this particular trailblazer is Sanja Zlatanic, SVP of HNTB Corporation! Read our interview with Zlatanic below all about her involvement in the industry, how she got started, and what we can do to bring more women into this exciting field. 

What is your actual involvement in the tunneling business?

As chair of HNTB’s National Tunnel Practice, I am responsible for establishing and growing the firm’s professional services for tunnels and complex underground structures within the U.S. and select international infrastructure, transportation, transit and rail markets. Also, my role includes developing an exemplary group of national tunnel experts to serve as professional role models while implementing HNTB’s vision and leadership characteristics, and who would, through their daily work, practice technical excellence, demonstrate the highest professional integrity and ethics and serve as thought leaders and mentors for younger generations of tunnel professionals.  

How have you been introduced to tunnel industry?
It happened naturally – I was following my passion and a desire to leave my personal mark on major infrastructure projects and their design and construction. I consider myself extremely lucky that many of those projects were taking place in New York early in my career. Indeed, in the late 80s and early 90s many most exciting U.S. tunnel projects were underway in New York metropolitan area such as East Side Access, Hudson Bergen Light Rail System, No. 7 Subway Line Extension, Access to Region’s Core, and others. Those mega projects allowed me to work alongside many talented professionals and experts in the industry who shaped my professional interests and career and whose professional acumen and integrity greatly influenced my own. Many of them are still around – it still gives me immense pleasure to have an opportunity to discuss with them challenges we encountered while dealing with major engineering issues, and decisions we jointly made, as well as introducing those tunneling giants to younger enthusiasts.

What do you think women can bring to this business?

Women play very important roles in any business and this is especially true for tunnel industry since there are so few of us that made this career choice. A few years ago, however, it seems this trend had changed and more young female professionals interested in tunnels and underground engineering entered this industry; this has been very refreshing and encouraging. I must say that women in tunneling have special bond – we are all very much aware how important it is to work hard, rely on teamwork and professional competence and innovation where it matters. Tunneling and underground projects are among the riskiest engineering practice areas due to direct dependence on subsurface conditions that can never be completely explored and greatly depend on interpretations. The only way to successfully conquer great challenges is relying on the team contribution and engaging experts as a technical sounding board. I am always enlightened with the level of professionalism, openness and courage young female engineers exhibit while dealing with complex issues.

Do you think that the presence of women changes a tunneling work environment? Did you have different experiences in different countries? 

As a young engineer, I often was advised that ‘you really do not need to know every single issue in tunneling but you must know who knows it best’ – I still find this advice fundamental to success of any tunnel project, whether it is related to design or construction. I strongly believe that a collaborative spirit is at the core of every female’s mind and the girls are not shy to implement it. Throughout my career, whether working on or leading major tunnel and underground projects, nationally and internationally, I found nothing but respect and profound professional collaboration within this male dominated industry. Occasionally, early in my career, I would find myself needing to work harder to ‘break the ice’ in terms of obtaining a team’s trust or having to prove my points -- in reality, I am very grateful to those instances since they made me a fast learner, gave me courage to think ‘outside the box’ and propelled me to bring up and develop innovative solutions.

Even if the number of women has been increasing over the years, the tunneling industry is still considered a male oriented environment. What can be done in your opinion to bring awareness of this business to a larger number of women?
The tunneling and mining industry is a very warm and gratifying environment and is very conducive to the atmosphere where women engineers thrive.  This originates from a long-developed culture of caring – lives of miners were often in the hands of their teammates. This culture had transferred into the consulting industry as well and a feeling of camaraderie and mutual respect is intense and ever present - we all exhibit it every time we gather at Moles or Beavers meetings. Women in this industry need to work together to break the potential stigma of a male dominated environment and open the door widely to the young female talents and their enlightening interests, caring nature and ever-increasing passion to learn and innovate.