Alison Horton Headshot

Alison Horton is a senior engineer at the Birmingham office of built environment consultancy, Curtins.

Horton is also a STEM ambassador and is passionate about encouraging more people – both male and female – into STEM related jobs.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

Following the completion of my master’s degree at Loughborough University, I joined built environment consultancy Curtins in its Birmingham office as a project engineer. Since then, I’ve progressed to senior engineer, and at the end of 2018 I was promoted to principal engineer and I’m running several high-profile projects within the company. I have also recently completed my chartership with the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE).

I oversee the management of projects, liaising with my team, the client and external third parties. I am responsible for overseeing the production of drawings and manage work delivery and proposals. I’m also part of the graduate recruitment team at Curtins. Within the Birmingham office I review graduate, placement, work experience and apprenticeship applications and play a part in the interview process.

I’m also a STEM ambassador aiming to inspire the next generation to consider construction and engineering as a career. This sees me working on a variety of activities, from one-off session in schools, to year-long commitments with charities such as Scale Rule and their Next Generation Design Work.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not really! I knew that I needed to get my A-Levels to go to university and I knew that I wanted to get my master’s degree, then get chartered, but that was about as far as the planning went. Even during my time at university, I didn’t have any plans to do a year out or study abroad – but as soon as those options were presented, I immediately took them and made them a part of my journey. I’m now chartered and at a point where I need to decide how I want my career to progress in an industry where there are so many possibilities.

Have you ever faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

As a graduate I realised the company I was working for wasn’t providing me with what I needed to progress my career in the way that I wanted. It was hard to make the decision to move on and leave behind those who had supported me through a placement year, but I knew I had to make the right decision for  my career and myself; I definitely haven’t  regretted the decision.

More recently, I found myself being given more responsibility and my role within the office was quickly escalating. However, my job title didn’t match up to this change, so I made sure to speak to the relevant people and communicate the work I was doing and the value that I was adding. I don’t think we should ever be scared to start conversations and make things happen off our own backs – honesty and being able to demonstrate value are key.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Getting chartered was a huge achievement for me and it was a relief to finally get there!  I’d been focussed on achieving it for five years following graduation, so it was nice to finally have it under my belt.

One of the achievements that really made me realise how far I’d come was when I became someone else’s mentor and role model. It had a big impact on me as a person and how I respond to my role and responsibilities at work. It’s a great feeling to find out someone looks up to you and it’s something I’m now very aware of in every aspect of what I do.

I’m proud that my work has been recognised by both my employer and the industry. I was awarded the Curtins 2018 Everyday Hero award and achieved Highly Commended in the ICE West Midlands Young Achiever Category.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

The right boss is so important. At the end of the day, you can work as hard as you like, but if this isn’t recognised and acknowledged by your superiors then I think your chances of progressing diminish. The best advice I can give is find the right company, find the right boss, be passionate about what you do and don’t be afraid to move on if where you are now isn’t right for you.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology/STEM?

Always ask questions. Not only will you learn more, but you’ll be showing enthusiasm and will be more engaged in what you do. Find what works for you. Know how you work and learn best, then find ways to adapt that into your work.

Don’t be afraid to give things a go. If you are given the chance to be a project lead, work abroad or run a team, don’t regret not having given it a go in the future.

Know your limitations. If you need help, you need to say so. People would rather know when you are struggling than you get something terribly wrong – speaking up first prevents any major issues arising on both a professional and personal level.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

I’ve heard so many stories from women in engineering and construction and the problems they have had throughout my career. Some stories are decades old, but some are sadly very recent, so there are definitely still barriers that need to be overcome.

Although many of the stories I’ve heard can be attributed to the individual and their mindset rather than a company-wide issue, there is still a definite belief that women need to perform better than men to achieve the same recognition.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology/STEM?

Getting women into the industry in the first step but getting them to stay is just as hard. I think it’s important that women aren’t treated any differently throughout their career. In general, women have the same needs and career aspirations as men, so should be afforded the same opportunities to grow, learn and showcase their talent. We just need to remember that men and women may achieve the same goals in different ways – just as you and your colleagues will have different ways of working.

Unconscious bias is a factor to consider as well. As the label suggests, many people don’t know they are even doing it. Inevitably the time may come where a woman wishes to start a family – but why should this be treated differently to a male member of staff having a child? Don’t alienate or isolate, but support and talk about their career and how things can work around their lives so they can continue to achieve their goals.

If you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I’m a staunch believer in diversity being a huge strength and a positive thing. It is so important to have different opinions and outlooks for something to be successful, so having more women in the industry works towards this. But it’s not as simple as “we have to get more women into engineering”, it’s about education and talking to students before they choose their GCSE subjects.

I’ve learned through my time working with schools that girls and boys need to be educated on their career options at an early age. However, many schools, teachers and parents are not equipped to do this. It’s important for all industries to highlight the work they do and the opportunities they provide as a career path. After that, students can make an informed decision on what’s right for them – and all industries will then benefit from having the right people.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech/STEM? E.g. podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc.

I found the European Women in Construction and Engineering Conference a great place to share ideas with like-minded people. I do think that women feel the need to connect with others in a similar position more than men do. I think it’s important that we are all looking for role models, as well as advice and guidance, so it’s about finding that inspiration from people you know and respect.

LinkedIn is also a must – I use it to follow certain groups and companies to keep up to date with things in construction and engineering, as well as using it to share my achievements and work.