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Being outnumbered as a woman has never held me back!

24 June 2020

Claire Stevenson is a graduate civil engineer working for Arup on their rail team in Glasgow. To celebrate INWED she tells us what drew her to the role and the challenges facing a woman civil engineer in 2020.

Being outnumbered as a woman has never held me back!
Claire Stevenson is a graduate civil engineer with Arup

“At school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I was good at maths and physics and my older sister had studied civil engineering, so she suggested I attend the university open days. I took a chance on it and thankfully really enjoyed the course!

“In my second year of university I completed an internship with a civil engineering contractor, at the end of which I really knew the career was for me. This internship was based with a rail team, and I spent the summer out at various sites across the UK rail network experiencing a huge variety of projects - from installing a 200m culvert undertrack in Oxford - to a bridge replacement in the north of Scotland. Because of this, I gained great experience and got to see that what we were learning at university had real-life implications.

Creating the right connections

“As mentioned, my internships in rail fascinated me due to the wide variety of projects which were covered by my team. Understanding the multi-disciplinary aspects of rail, such as track design, overhead line layout and collaboration with train signallers and telecoms gave me an appreciation of how multiple elements must work together with civil engineering design to produce a functioning railway.

I also wanted to know more about how to make a railway work. So many people rely on train services throughout the world every day, I was intrigued to learn more about where and why it can go wrong and how the logic worked (with the aim to hopefully one day make it better!)

My first major project onsite was in 2016 and involved an installation of a culvert under the track in the heart of Oxford. Initially it was really nerve-racking. Firstly, because it was my first project on my first ever job, and secondly because I was one of two women on the site! Despite this, I settled in really well and found myself at the heart of the project setting out locations for the culvert units and liaising with machine controllers with ease.

My female role models

The first role model would be my sister, Nicola. Without her introducing me to civil engineering I wouldn’t have a clue what it was! I’ll always be grateful for the site visit she organised for me on her first project- not many people would be able to say they’ve stood on top of the helipad of the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow!

Jo Da Silva, a structural engineer, who has spent a huge amount of her career providing disaster relief and prevention in parts of the world struck by devastation is another of my role-models. I was lucky enough to hear Jo speak at my graduate initiation week at Arup. Hearing her talk about her career was not only fascinating but also really inspiring as she had the same start to her graduate career as me.

Another would certainly have to be Emily Roebling. When both engineers working on the Brooklyn Bridge (her husband and father in law) passed away from decompression sickness she took the baton and oversaw the now iconic landmark to completion. At a time where being a woman engineer would have certainly been more difficult than it is today, she’s a great example of what you can achieve if you put your heart and mind to it.

Opening doors

Since starting my graduate role at Arup I’ve also had some great opportunities. To have played even a small role in Glasgow’s iconic Queen Street Station refurbishment has been great. Recently I’ve been working on a smaller railway station design near the borders of Scotland, looking at implementing a new Network Rail standard bridge design, and understanding further how civils design ties in with other disciplines on the railway. As it’s a smaller project, I’ve been able to have a bit more involvement and contribute to major parts of the design which has been a great confidence boost and helped me learn so much.

Overall, I’m so glad I took the chance to study civil engineering. The industry over time has become a place where women can thrive, Civil engineering is a really rewarding career, and despite sometimes being outnumbered as a woman, I’ve never felt like it’s held me back. Hopefully I’ve given you some insight into what a great sector of engineering it can be and inspired more young women to discover rail engineering as a career too. It can be daunting to enter a field with fewer women, but support is there if you feel you need it, and it’s a great profession to get into!

  • Claire Stevenson, Graduate civil engineer at Arup at Arup