Why I left industrial engineering…

This is the first of two blogs about being an engineer…

Today is National Women in Engineering Day in the UK, the Royal Academy of Engineering has estimated there is a shortage of about 1 Million engineers and technicians in the UK, and it is hoped that women can help to close that shortage.  It’s interesting to me for two reasons firstly, the shortage problem and narrative reminds me of the ongoing discourse in healthcare about the shortage of GPs and nurses at the moment, and also I originally trained as an engineer (there were 14 of us on my course of approx. 120 in the mid 90’s).  Contrary to this report, I had no lack of encouragement from home, and I was the only female recruited to work in my cohort of the undergraduate programme for ICI and gender problems remain rife.  I kind of liked the visibility this gave me, though there were other problems, I progressed within organisations and roles quickly but despite this, within two years I was earning less than my male peers, recruited with the same qualifications and with the same job roles as me despite me having as much, if not more, positive client feedback about my work.  Chit chat around the water cooler was harder, I have no interest in football!  Safety clothing never fitted me (I’m only an optimistic 5’2″), and I could rarely find small safety shoes in the UK, instead purchasing them whilst on roles in the USA.

I qualified as a manufacturing systems engineer which meant my expertise areas lay in areas such as systems thinking, organisational design, design for manufacture, manufacturing process design and what was called ‘Japanese production techniques’, these days more commonly known as lean or continuous improvement and similar ground to that of operations management.  As an undergraduate, I worked on industrial placements using these skills to develop Investors in People processes with Electrolux, to develop automation processes for producing TV coils at Philips, and  to improve the quality processes to develop flat screen glass without it buckling or scratching on the rollers inside the furnaces at Schott Glass, the precursor technologies to flat screen TV.  My early years in the chemical industry continued my professional education ensuring I met competency requirements in leadership, teamworking, project management, change management and many other more ‘generic’ skills whilst working on many improvement projects to improve quality and productivity whilst making liquid carbon dioxide (bubbles for your coca cola!), paint, perfume, food starch (coatings to make your French fries extra crispy), surfactants (the foaming ingredient in your shampoo) and many other products.  And I loved it.

By the time I had a family, being female meant, despite my fairly feminist husband, I was still the de-facto main carer living some distance from grandparents and other family members who may have helped us with regular childcare. The long term industry trend of outsourcing engineering departments and bringing the skills in as temporary contractors and consultants meant the lifestyle of long days on engineering projects, travelling every week to different sites with lots of overnight stays, to help improve productivity and quality in chemical plants was no longer an option for me, and my family. This practical reality is a critical challenge to keeping female engineers, not just recruiting them, and has yet to be addressed nationally in my view, although promisingly there is increasing support to encourage professional women back  into the workplace.

For me, this was when I joined healthcare, with much less need for travel (long hours seem to remain of course, but there is somewhat more flexibility), maybe I am no longer an engineer, however in my next blog I argue that is not the case, and in many ways I feel I worked more as a engineer in healthcare than I did when working in chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

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