As a tiny tot, Shanika Cabraal trotted behind her father when he went to construction sites. Hardly a place for a child, yet it didn’t seem to bother the young Shanika that her friends preferred monkey bars and ball pits to her construction site visits with her engineer father.  It was an unexpected change of [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Setting her sights on a ‘man’s world’

Holding a Masters in Project Management Engineering and winning the 2014 Zonta award for Engineering, all at 25, Shanika Cabraal says she has always felt at home at quarries and construction sites

As a tiny tot, Shanika Cabraal trotted behind her father when he went to construction sites. Hardly a place for a child, yet it didn’t seem to bother the young Shanika that her friends preferred monkey bars and ball pits to her construction site visits with her engineer father. 

Shanika Cabraal : Following in her father’s footsteps. Pic by Indika Handuwala

Young achiever: Shanika with her award at the Zonta awards night

It was an unexpected change of heart before her A/Ls that made Shanika give up her dream of studying medicine for a new one in engineering. That spontaneous move proved to be the right one for the young engineer who at 25, holds a Master of Engineering in Project Management and won 2014’s Zonta award for Engineering, also being the youngest winner for this year.

Growing up with two brothers and tagging along with her engineer father on his site visits, Shanika has always felt right at home at quarries and construction sites. Sitting down to what she admits candidly is her first interview the young engineer is vivacious and confident; two qualities which have helped her immensely in a field of work known for being stereotypically male dominated.

Having grown up in Sri Lanka, Shanika is a product of St. Bridget’s Convent and the Colombo International School. Having been a “quiet child”, she laughingly described her childhood fear of being left alone which she had to face upto when she crossed the waters to Australia to further her education. “When I left I was all alone,” she explained, but it really helped boost her confidence and independence, she felt.

Seven years later, she’s back home with a wealth of work experience behind her. Currently working at CML-MTD Construction Ltd. Shanika was also a part of Vicroads, Australia. One of the 30 graduates selected for the programme, it was a big break for the young engineer and her first taste of a career in engineering.

It was at Vicroads that she found herself working on a 180 million dollar project- the only female in her office. “Only 20% of engineers were female,” she explained referring to the field of engineering she was involved in whereas areas such as civil engineering have an equal number of men and women working alongside each other. But rather than a challenge the experience proved to be a learning curve and a chance to understand different perspectives. “I never felt like I needed any protection,” she shrugs matter-of-factly. Perhaps it was because she grew up a tomboy, or maybe it was her positive, direct approach to anything.

Travelling, she says, is the best part of her work, as it takes her from Mannar to Hmbantota. Meeting people and getting to know them has always been of interest to Shanika. “I’ll talk to everyone,” she says, “whether they are labourers at the sites or directors of companies” without sticking mainly to business. She’ll talk to them about their families and how they are, feeling that working together is obviously easier when people are comfortable around you. Her forthright manner Shanika owes to her time spent abroad which gave her the confidence to be more open about her opinions and ideas regardless of whether they are right or wrong.

Since coming back she’s had her plate full, with her work at CML-MTD and being a part of the Young Constructors Forum (YCF). “Initially I was a bit scared,” she admits as coming back to live in the island after seven years proved to be harder than she expected. Walking into her first meeting, she recalls being quiet, very unlike her, not because she was once again the only girl but because they were organising cricket matches. “I don’t know anything about cricket,” she laughs, “but I helped organise a lot of matches.”

When she’s not on site visits or seated at sports grounds with the YCF Shanika finds herself in the kitchen. “I love baking,” she says, happily merging designing and engineering with her cooking. Her latest project, a 3D figure cake for her nephew currently occupies her time. Shanika who is open to the idea of one day having her own family but never at the expense of her job enjoys the company of children and feels that the problem many women deal with is the feeling of being judged for trying to keep their careers while juggling their family live.

Growing up Shanika was not a typical feminist, nor did she think herself capable of extraordinary achievements. It was halfway through her degree that she realized she wanted to do more than just pass and strove to go for a first class honours. “I had a female manager in Australia,” she reminisces, a lady who really made an impact on her way of thinking. “She told me that a lot of people would try to change me, make me do things a certain way. But she believed in my potential.”
Her night at the Zonta awards opened her eyes to a different outlook on working women – “Looking at those really accomplished women gives you something to work for,” she says.

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