Julie Wood – the first lady of civil engineering
Jane McGuire

Julie Wood – the first lady of civil engineering

Julie Wood the first lady of civil engineering

Published January 20 2017

Women in engineering; a topic that has been widely ignored, until now. As the world focuses on STEM subjects and the gender imbalance it once, and often still has, we believe this needs to change. With this in mind, when we arranged our interview with Julie Wood, runner up in the Cosmopolitan Women Achiever of the Year and finalist in last year’s Building magazine Woman of the Year award, we were keen to find out more about forging a career in what was, a predominantly ‘man’s world’.  Starting out as an Engineering Technician, Julie’s impressive career has seen her involvement in a number of high profile projects, such as the ‘earthquake proof’ Istanbul Cultural Centre and the prize winning headquarters for the Formula One team McLaren. Today, Julie leads a team of 120 engineers and is a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) – a benchmark for those who have practised at the top level. For all those, male or female, who dream of following in Julie’s footsteps, have a read of this.


First things first, what first piqued your interest in civil engineering?

I grew up on Teesside, where there are two remarkable bridges – The Transporter Bridge, which has a car deck that is hoisted up and across the river Tees. And Newport Bridge, with two lifting towers that have mechanisms to allow the bridge deck to be lifted up. The movement of both of these bridges allow the Tess to be navigable a considerable distance from the sea. When I was a girl, I was in awe of these two bridges and this certainly helped me to discover engineering!


Did you always want to be a civil engineer?

I did but the options to take technical drawing and metalwork at secondary school were not available to girls at that time. Instead I was encouraged down the medical route, which wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I applied at 18 to become an Engineering Technician and worked in a local drawing office, while doing a ‘day-release’ BTEC. After the successful completion of this, I was encouraged to embark on a full time degree.


That’s really interesting, even today there are fewer women at board level in civil engineering? Why do you think that is?

I’m not sure that this is limited to civil engineering. I think we need to help executives to understand what people are achieving, regardless of gender, and help those that may be a little less networked or positioned. I think that this would result in a change of make-up of boards. I do not agree with positive discrimination or quotas; we should value males and females equally.


What do you think would encourage more young women into civil engineering?

I think we need more high profile females in the public domain, and an improved education of the careers service about the vast opportunities there are for women in civil engineering.


Did you have any female civil engineer role models when you were starting out?

I didn’t and the environment I was working in was very male dominated. I was frequently the ‘sole’ female which can be quite an isolating experience at times. I’m not sure it would have changed anything but it would have made the experience a little easier at times particularly earlier in my career.


What would you say to young women considering a career in civil engineering?

Go for it! It’s a wonderful and diverse field. Being able to design and build for the benefit of society and to have the opportunity to do this locally, nationally and internationally, offers a myriad of opportunities through-out your whole career.


Looking back on your impressive career, what are the highlights for you? 

One has to be delivering the headquarters for McLaren, the Formula One team. I was the project engineer and later became the project director. I truly ‘lived and breathed’ the project. It delivered an innovative approach to foundation design and construction, and it’s a beautiful building.


What did it mean to you to become a Fellow of ICE?

I was immensely proud to have achieved that level of recognition and excellence.


What qualities do you think make a great civil engineer?

Seeing beyond your specialism and understanding the wider implications of civil engineering. In addition to delivering hard solutions such as energy, water and transportation, we also need to improve the social infrastructure and create environments that people enjoy.


With the increase in apprenticeships in the engineering industry, do you think work-based learning is as important as a degree?

Yes I do. I started my career as an engineering technician, attending college one day and evening per week. The rest was work based learning. It’s possible to have a very fulfilling career through this route and a degree is not for everyone.  Having said that I did feel that I benefitted from having a concentrated period when I was learning during my degree so it’s really an individual choice.


What advice would you give to someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?

Welcome every opportunity that you get. Look for the learning in it and ‘squeeze the pips out of it.’  Recognise what you do well at naturally, spot what you can grow at and acknowledge your weaknesses and accept help. Find your ‘sweet spot’ and then work in that. The construction industry is big enough for everyone to have a sweet spot. This is where you a likely to get the most enjoyment and success. Be determined and believe in yourself, there’s always a way.


What next for you?

Having had increased responsibilities at Arup over the last 5 years, I now feel that I could make an even more significant contribution at Board level and would be interested to take on a Non-Exec role again, particularly in the private sector.

I have been fortunate to work on projects that have stretched and challenged me throughout my career and I look forward to being able to contribute to future multi-disciplinary complex projects going forward. I’d be particularly excited about working in the cities arena, helping to develop new and existing cities into thriving communities that are economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.


Finally, how would you sum up what engineering means to you?

It’s remarkable. At the age of 14 at secondary modern school, I was told I had no chance of getting five O’Levels. My Dad asked me what I was going to do about that so my response was to prove them wrong. I got six and found a way to become an Engineering Technician which set me on the path to where I am now - a Director and Global Leader of Programme and Project Management working on some amazing projects.

I have navigated challenges and taken opportunities along the way whilst always really enjoying what I was doing and believing in myself.


Thanks Julie, this has been truly inspiring!


If you dream of following in Julie’s prestigious footsteps, why not get things started with a civil engineering course? From designing a Formula One’s team HQ, through to creating a medical research facility that will help fight diseases like cancer civil engineers shape our world, so why not join them?