Women in Tunneling

Sarah Wilson - September 2019's #WomenWhoTunnel

By Molly Burford posted 09-25-2019 11:20 AM


Each month, Women In Tunneling will feature an exemplary female member of the tunneling industry. For September 2019, this particular trailblazer is Sarah Wilson, Principal at McMillen Jacobs! Read our interview with Wilson 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. 

  1. What is your actual involvement in the tunneling business?

    - Designer since 1999 on transit, water, sewer, and wine cave projects, many of which have been in California, but also other locations such as Massachusetts and Puerto Rico.
    - Construction manager on transit and water projects in California
    - National Construction Management Practice Lead for McMillen Jacobs Associates since January of 2017
    - McMillen Jacobs Associates Board Chair since 2018; board service for JA and MJA since 2013
    - Invited lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Geotechnical Engineering and Engineering Management Programs since 2000
    - American Rock Mechanics Association: was a board member for 6 years and served as president for 2 years
    - Editor, UCA of SME to be published in May 2019: Recommended Contract Practices for Underground Construction, Second Edition
    - Registered Professional Engineer in California and Certified Construction Manager with CMAA

  2. How have you been introduced to tunnel industry?

    My engineering geology professor at Drexel University inspired me with case histories of tunnels, and also of failures that occurred when people didn’t check (or didn’t know to check) the engineering properties of the ground they were building in or on. I studied as much engineering geology as I could there, pursued geotechnical engineering at UC Berkeley, and went to work in tunneling at McMillen Jacobs Associates (formerly Jacobs Associates).

  3. What do you think women can bring to this business?

    In general, I think women are good at understanding the human aspect of project communication (how people relate to each other and why they are behaving in a certain manner). Listening to other project participants makes it easier to understand their goals for success. I also think we bring different perspective to the business, which provides opportunities for improvement.

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

    The construction site is more civilized with women on site. This can yield better communication and flow of project information.

  5. 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?

    Encourage women that are in the business to visit schools, industry events, give a Ted talk or do a podcast. We can get the word out that this is a business that women can be successful in. It’s also important to retain women in the business, and to ensure they have the tools and the support to be successful. Whenever someone has tried to complain about my approach or go around me, my valued colleagues back me up, reinforcing the respect they have for me. I do the same for my colleagues as well.