#WomenExcel, Impact

When I look back at my experiences during the past 50 years — growing up as a dyslexic woman of colour — it amazes me how much progress has been made in society. I always felt like a round peg in a square world, facing a school system that only supported women in joining care and support professions — with additional barriers of entry for people that looked like me. Being dyslexic, I was made to feel like I had nothing to give and that support roles would be the best that I could do.

At age 16, I joined a large company as a trainee word processing operator and at that point, I still felt limited in my ability. The world felt like a very steep hill, and I believed that being a dyslexic girl of colour was holding me back.

But with age comes wisdom, and I realized that it’s important to make the most of what you have. Within the last 10 to 20 years, I began feeling like I had more skills to offer, became more comfortable with my dyslexia, and started embracing the good things that it offers.

For example, I am organised and a great problem solver; I have good relationship skills; and I can, and often do, think outside the box. I have developed lots of valuable skills to help me get along, but most important, I realized that everything in life happens to teach you a lesson and that as individuals, we need to help, encourage and support each other. One word, look or action can change not only your world but the worlds of those around you. If you have ever read The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, you will know that I mean.

This realization has made me enthusiastic about encouraging other people to overcome the things they feel hold them back. I am especially passionate about encouraging girls to explore all of the opportunities now available to them, and to go and “conquer the world.” With help and support, girls and women can stand shoulder to shoulder with men to create a more caring and supportive world.

Throughout my career, I have had a number of woman supervisors over the years and, like any manager — man or woman — some were good, some were not so good, and some were encouraging and supportive. After hearing, “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.” from managers along my career journey, I developed strengths that make me really think problems through to figure out the big picture, and always consider how what I want or can do will affect others around me.

At AECOM, I struck gold with my supervisor Lynn Walker, who is the regional administration manager for London. She has an energy and positive attitude that is catching, she is open to my suggestions and guides me along the way, and I always know that she has my back. Her support isn’t about always saying yes to me, but it is always about helping me develop solutions to problems, and giving me the room to grow and develop.

My experience working with Lynn, coupled with my enthusiasm for helping others, was why I was so happy to take on the responsibility of building on the London Work Experience Programme.

Last year, we hosted 24 students over a six-week programme when they visited 10 different AECOM departments, explored different roles and gained an understanding of how each department plays its part in the bigger picture of the company. We received amazing feedback from the students, who stated that they felt like members of the team, and we also received positive comments from schools, parents and the host departments! Throughout this process, Lynn has given me lots of support and encouragement.

I love the variety and complexity of this role and being able to encourage and inspire 15- to 18-year-old students to become engineers and architects. I especially enjoy being able to encourage girls to think about becoming engineers; open their eyes to roles they may not have thought about; and help show them that communication and relationship-building are key skills for the future — not just in consultancy but in everyday life.

The world has progressed so quickly from when I was at school, where many people assumed that being dyslexic meant you were unintelligent and that being a girl meant that nursing, secretarial work and being a wife were your only career choices. Although they are all commendable options, they are not the only ways we can use our skills and make a contribution to the world. We are equal and in some cases, can excel quicker in various fields compared to men. It’s important to note that being equal doesn’t mean being “like a man.” Instead, it means using your skills to achieve the same, if not better, results.

Even as a round peg in a square world, I have come to embrace what makes me different. I now realize that a positive word can allow someone to rise to levels they didn’t know they could reach. Every journey starts with a single step, so look back at your life, and chart the footprints of the many people who have made you who you are today. It may be the teacher who was kind to you, the person who wouldn’t let you quit, or the person who opened the door for you and made you feel a little more relaxed as you went to that important job interview.  YOU could be the person who helped and encouraged someone to succeed. I may not even be aware of what I have done, but in a small way, I have changed the world for the better.

Please comment below to share any similar experiences you have or discuss the women who have helped you overcome obstacles in your life. Be sure to use the #WomenExcel hashtag when you share this post on Twitter, Google+ or Facebook.


Nina Burgher-Toney is the coordinator of AECOM’s London Work Experience Programme, which is being rolled out across U.K. offices during 2015. She is also an administrator for the company’s London Commercial Cost Management team.

Originally published Mar 25, 2015

Author: Nina Burgher-Toney