Women in Engineering: Time to Get On Track In Rail

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by Rebekah Valero-Lee on

Beth West’s role with High Speed Two (HS2) Limited is a far cry from her childhood in Detroit, Michigan, where her perceptions of engineering were that you designed cars.

As commercial director of Europe’s largest infrastructure project, Beth manages a team of 120 and is currently responsible for procurement and delivery of more than £20 billion worth of contracts.

“Engineering knowledge is definitely needed to reap value for money from the project,” explains Beth. “We’re buying so many diverse contracts from such a high number of suppliers, so understanding the elements from a technical perspective ensures companies know what opportunities there are with HS2.”

Her CV reads like a who’s who in infrastructure, having occupied roles with Transport for London (TfL) and Thames Water, where she was head of commercial for the Thames Tideway Tunnel project. Yet it was Beth’s passion for maths that originally saw her opt for a career in politics and banking in the United States, before a corporate finance role with TfL led her into the engineering industry in 2003.

Beth continued: “A person’s level of understanding of engineering obviously depends on the type of job they do, but I’ve learnt so much from actually talking to engineers.

“This industry can look quite formidable to outsiders, especially when they have their own language, so to speak, yet engineers are so passionate about what they do and always happy to take the time to explain things.beth black and white

“I’ve never been afraid to ask questions and it’s this curiosity that has helped me to understand the commercial elements of a project and how to manage risks and assets.”

HS2 will link eight of Britain’s 10 largest cities with 350 miles of new track. With the project estimated to support as many as 400,000 jobs across the UK, and construction set to start in 2017, Beth and her team are currently focused on civil engineering and railway systems procurement, including track, power, overhead lines and trains.

“In my life I’ve never lacked ambition,” explains Beth. “And what better challenge than delivering one of the world’s largest construction projects? There’s no cookie cutter solution in this sector and the whole point in coming to work is to solve issues effectively.

“We always talk about engineering as building things, but it’s the importance that these bridges, trains and buildings have on the economy and people, and the long-lasting positive legacy of improving connections between communities.”

As a female in a male-dominated profession, Beth has worked hard throughout her career to ensure her capabilities shone through and that she was noticed and remembered for what she brought to a role.

“Being a woman in engineering can be lonely at times, but there’s definitely been a conscious shift, especially since I’ve been in the industry, to attract a more diverse group of people,” Beth explained.

And she knows first-hand the benefits of this. As a HS2 representative on the Board of Governors of the National College for High Speed Rail, Beth explains how members were consciously chosen to ensure diversity, with almost half of those female.

“Initial design feedback showed that College wasn’t particularly attractive to young women, so the board worked closely with the architects to ensure it appealed to everyone,” explains Beth. “This is just one example of how open discussions, diversity and culture change can enhance a project.

“Flexibility is also crucial if we’re to attract the next generation of engineers, particularly millennials. This isn’t just focussed towards women, but creating a working environment that suits everyone and ensures we attract the best talent into the industry.”

For more information, visit: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/high-speed-two-limited

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