As we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day 2021 we take the time to learn and grow from inspirational women in STEM who are all around us. We hope by engaging in these conversations we can promote positive change and make STEM careers accessible for more women.
In our latest interview we chat to Isabel Fox, a Process Engineer in the Chemical Industry. Isabel has always been interested in hands-on type subjects; how things work but also the nature and chemistry of things. So Chemical Engineering seemed like an interesting field with so many different outcomes and lines of work.
Q. Can you tell us a little about your background and career to date? What attracted you to the STEM sector and what do you think makes it a good place for women?
I have a Masters degree in Chemical Engineering which brought me to Scotland to do an Industrial Placement in the Chemical Industry.
I have been working in the same company for about 15 years now. I work in the manufacturing of fine chemicals and I have been involved in a number of multi-million pound projects from design concept to starting up these new facilities as well as ongoing daily support for issues and improvement of its operations/processes.
I have always been interested in hands-on type subjects; how things work but also the nature and chemistry of things. So Chemical Engineering seemed like an interesting field with so many different outcomes and lines of work. Having attended a University with pretty much only Science subjects and many Engineering degrees, it really was stark how many of those courses were mainly male interested, but Chemical Engineering always had more of a balance with half of the student population being female. Especially compared to some of the other Engineering courses which had a male to female ratio of 20:1!
Because of the sort of jobs Chemical Engineers end up doing, it really lends itself to having more diversity, I think... from pharmaceuticals, to oil and gas, food, drink, mining, fine chemicals, agriculture, etc....
Q. Has there been anyone who has made a positive and lasting impression on your career? How can we learn from this person and their approach?
When I was at University I had a lot of female Professors and in fact my mentor who guided me during my Placement in Scotland was a female - she was the sort of person who was interested in the intellectual ability of the pupil whether a man or a woman - she also had no problems in telling people what she thought if she believed it, so it was quite refreshing.
In terms of work, I have been very lucky to be part of a company with very strong women who are all in senior, managerial positions and in the same role as me. So this has meant that I have always had plenty of people who support me and back me up on all of my day to day work. And I would say that generally there is an atmosphere of mutual respect for each other's jobs, and roles fulfilled by men and women in our work which makes it easier to nurture a culture of acceptance and respect.
Q. Is there a clear difference in your experiences of being a female in the sector at the beginning of your career and now?
I would say when I first started there was probably a quarter who were women in the team. Although the team is much smaller now we have four Process Engineers, three women and one man.
It tends to be other disciplines and expertise areas that tend to not be too sure of us. But once we show that we know what we are talking about then it is all good. I would say that I have probably to be a bit more outgoing and chatty to get a good rapport with new people, whereas probably men may not need as much of that.
Q. If you were with a group of peers this evening and talking openly about this topic, what would be the key issues discussed?
Probably talking about how other disciplines could use this same approach of mutual respect between disciplines irrespective of gender. But also that it would be good for other STEM subjects to open up to opportunities for men and women: people should be judged by the work that they do and not their gender.
Really having both men and women and equal opportunities for listening and talking different points of view, more times than not, it brings a different perspective into things and problems thus providing overall better solutions. Men and women do tend to think differently when solving issues and coming up with solutions and inevitably we will come to different ways to achieve a solution.
Q. What role do you think other colleagues have in helping organisations achieve greater gender balance?
Equal opportunities is a must - probably women don't put themselves forward as much as men, so sometimes it is necessary for the managers to look around and think of usual "box" and invite people forward who may not have been the obvious choice - these people may surprise you!
Q. How do you think COVID-19 has impacted gender diversity in STEM and the capacity to fulfil potential?
Covid has been an interesting one... on the one hand women will have more flexibility now to allow for childcare duties to be easier. But if we are not in the office often, then we may end up missing out on opportunities and learning. So it will be a fine balance for managers to not forget about those who are not visible in the office 100% of the time, whether its through reduced hours or since they choose to WFH.
Personally for me I have found flexible working super useful: less commuting, more time focused on working as there are no distractions but also much more flexibility - we are currently delivering two multi-million pounds projects in different countries with different time zones and having flexibility works in favour of the company too since it allowed me to nip out to do the school pick up and then come home and attend meetings in the evening when I would normally be commuting or home already.
Q. Who do you think are the most inspiring women in STEM today?
There are so many inspiring women out there: from my Maths Teacher in High School who was also an Engineer, to the Professors out there speaking their minds, to the Managers who recommend other women to positions higher up, to the colleagues praising each other’s work - these are the small steps that will normalise women in STEM subjects and inspire others to follow suit. Our daughters and sons will think nothing of following whichever subjects they feel passionate and interested in.
In specific though, I think the MARS Rover launch has allowed many very intelligent women to appear on our TVs and online, coming alive in people's homes. Showing these very intelligent women in STEM subjects which our young girls will be looking up to and hopefully copying as role models and inspirational women, and fingers crossed, following on the footsteps of!