When I applied to study mechanical engineering at university in the late 1980s it seemed like the natural next step for me. I’d always loved maths and problem-solving, and, after a brief stint at an accountancy firm, I quickly knew I wanted to do something more technical and hands-on.
It was only when I arrived at university I discovered that, out of a 60-strong course, I was the only woman, and realised how unusual my experience was. Looking back now, I appreciate that I was lucky to have received the guidance and support I did, or indeed even to have engineering suggested to me at all. Back then, there just wasn’t the same level of STEM outreach – and certainly not for women.
My first job as a mechanical engineer was for a major manufacturer. I never expected to be treated differently, so it came as a surprise when I was. Based next to the shop floor, it was part and parcel of the role to be on the receiving end of disparaging comments and accusations that I was taking a man’s job.
When I moved to Air Products in 1999 it was like a breath of fresh air in terms of attitude and approach. Working for one of the world’s leading industrial gas companies, I found myself surrounded by like-minded people, from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines.
I was so impressed that, after a career break and the birth of my two daughters, I rejoined the company in 2005 and now head a team of 12 engineers who are responsible for specifying and engineering the equipment necessary to ensure safe and efficient operation for the Air Products’ plants in the European region.
What I have found during the past 13 years here is an environment in which I have always been treated with the utmost professionalism and respect. I have never experienced prejudice of any kind and have never felt that being a woman has hindered my career. This is an organisation that believes wholeheartedly in equality and diversity – it invests heavily in STEM outreach targeted at all genders and backgrounds, and this positive story is one I feel is incredibly important to tell.
I truly believe that those of us with positive experiences have a responsibility to make our voices heard. This should not detract from the very real challenges that many women still face but should highlight that not all professions or workplaces are the same. Young women shouldn’t enter into manufacturing or engineering careers with the expectation of being treated differently. There are more and more women succeeding in these roles.These women are skilled at what they do and are surrounded by people whose attitudes have moved on.
I am proud to say that, until very recently, all three machinery manager positions at Air Products, covering Europe, Asia and the US, were filled by women.
There is still some way to go. STEM outreach and positive female role models have really helped raise awareness of the opportunities that a career in engineering can offer. However, while chemical engineering, for example, seems to attract a good percentage of women, other disciplines such as my own are still dominated by men. If we’re to attract the very best skills, this needs to change, and I hope that positive stories such as mine can play a significant part in bringing about this change by showing that there are many women – like me – who experience respect, professionalism and an environment in which they have equal opportunities to make a difference and get ahead.
It is important to share these experiences and to celebrate the companies and career paths where a person’s gender no longer has a bearing on their success. International Women’s Day on 8 March seems like the ideal time to do just that.