Female Engineer of the Month
Claudia Philps - Network Rail
Why did you choose to become an engineer?
I started to realise I was interested in engineering when I was doing my GCSE's. I was interested in Maths and Physics, but more interested in the practical aspects of the subjects. I started to wonder, how do buildings stand up? How do bridges span wide rivers? How do you physically construct a bridge across a deep valley? It was from there that engineering was on my radar and I decided to study it at university.
What skills do you have that make you a good engineer?
I think to be a good engineer you have to have a good balance of being creative and logical. Engineering is ultimately problem-solving, and if you are able to come up with new and innovative ideas that are also practical and achievable, you will be valued as an engineer. I have the technical knowledge and understanding that is rightly expected from me as an engineer, but I think my ability to work as part of a team and build effective relationships is fundamental in making an engineering solution a reality.
What advantages do you have as a female engineer?
Despite being in a very male dominated rail industry, I have always felt that being a female has been an advantage for me. In a room full of men, I often stand out, which usually means that people listen when I am talking and they remember me. I also think that women can have different skills to men; different perspectives; new angles to a problem or solution - All of which make female engineers highly valued. This has recently been recognised by Mark Carne, Chief Executive of Network Rail, in his comments about the impact of an overly male environment on safety. My role is safety critical and I have knowledge how engineers need both strong people skills and technical engineering skills to be successful in delivering their job safely.
What has been the most exciting project that you have worked on?
Whilst on the Network Rail graduate scheme, I was involved in developing the Western Route Weather Resilience and Climate Change Adaptation plan. I was part of the team that analysed the recent issues that the rail network has faced with the changing weather patterns and considered possible options to minimise the potential impact of climate change.
For the Western Route the main issue has been water in recent years. The Dawlish Sea Wall in Devon collapsed after a storm of strong winds caused sea water to overtop the wall and wash away the support for the tracks, which led to the track being suspended mid-air. Many aspects had to be considered in the repair work after the event - how could the wall be safely repaired? How much would it cost to repair? How can we get material to site as there is no railway, no road and the sea is quite shallow? How long would reconstruction take? How can we make the wall stronger yet conserve the original appearance? How long would no trains run and no passengers can get into or out of Cornwall? How much money will be lost in tourism?
There are a lot of issues to think about for just one event! The Weather Resilience and Climate Change Adaptation plan aimed to locate our vulnerable areas and make them more resilient so we don't have a similar scale event in the future. Some of the suggestions that I proposed in the report are being developed, which is very satisfying. Having said that, I hope we don't get the extreme weather that will put my ideas to the test.
Engineering is still often perceived as a 'male' industry. What advice would you give to young women who are considering a career in engineering?
I think it is important to have the right attitude as a woman going into engineering. You have to be able to get "stuck in", be confident in your ability, in what you are able contribute and be prepared to work hard to prove that you are just as capable as a male counterpart. If the job requires it, you may need to be prepared to get muddy or do manual labour.
However, that does not mean you can't be feminine in the work environment if you want to be. I wear a dress to work and get changed into overalls later if I need to; I'll curl my hair for an important meeting; I paint my nails. Being an engineer in a male dominated environment, doesn't mean that you can't be yourself. Yes, most engineering disciplines are male dominated and you will probably work primarily with men. But that is changing slowly but surely.
What key fact would you share with parents about the opportunities for women in engineering?
I think something that people worry about is that women are patronised and not treated equally in engineering. However, my experience has been almost the complete opposite. Yes there have been a few people who are a little hesitant about a female engineer and yes some site facilities are not really set up for women, but they have been in the small minority. Both at university and at work, I have been given equal opportunities and treated in a similar way to everyone else, male or female.
I love my job and engineering has provided me with some interesting, some bizarre, and some brilliant moments. I would highly recommend engineering as a career – for anyone.