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Women in Engineering - WiE have the Tools to Succeed

As part of Redline’s ongoing support of Women in Engineering, we discuss the career path that Karen took to become an Engineering Manager.

During a recent 1-2-1, an employee was talking about an experience he had as a graduate, as the conversation flowed, it made me reflect on incidents that happened to me early in my career. For example, I was working in a manufacturing facility as a maintenance engineer and there was one particular shift team that just did not speak to me, at all. They appeared to struggle to accept that I was their maintenance engineering cover. So, there were instances where the line would be down for a while and if I was working in another area of the factory, I wouldn’t know until I came back past the line because they would not immediately inform me. At the time I really struggled with their actions. As far as I could tell, I had given them no reason to think that I was not capable of doing my job effectively, but here I was feeling like I just had to accept their actions.

I do not dwell on negative experiences, I mean, that was nearly 20 years ago, but when you sit and think about it, you feel and appreciate how tough that was.

I feel proud that an experience like this did not dictate my career. I did not get into engineering because I wanted to be a pioneer or want to prove that women can be engineers, I did it because I am passionate about engineering and found a role that I thought I could make a difference in, and that made me happy.

I recently interviewed a women graduate, and listening to her experiences during her Physics studies, one teacher was supportive another teacher questioned the girl’s ability to study physics. I couldn’t quite believe it!

It’s so sad but I know that is the mindset of a limited number of people. Unfortunately, I've got an example of this. My experience was more than 20 years ago now and what is shocking is that your example is more recent.  When I was an apprentice, I did a college course to supplement my practical studies. It turned out that during the first year I had not fulfilled the correct modules as they had been incorrectly set, and then they closed the course halfway through. I then had to undertake the course and finish it at an alternative establishment. When I went to the new university, they said, “If you want to complete this course, you're going to have to double up on your modules to fit it all in in the timeframe”, and then the individual said, ”You're not going to be capable of that.” I responded, “What do you mean I'm not capable?”, and he said, “I don’t believe you can do it; I mean let us not even talk about the fact that you are a woman, but you are not capable.” I was stunned. He did not know me, had not met me previously, or had seen my academic history and the fact that I’m female should not have been part of this conversation. I’m still stunned thinking back to it now. I feel the need to add that I went on to complete all the extra modules and the course and then moved onto higher-level education too, all whilst working full time. That experience did not dictate my next move.

We’ve jumped in quite quickly, let us do an introduction.

I am Karen Adams, the Engineering Manager at Peli Biothermal. Peli are the first cold chain packaging solutions provider of patented and award-winning single-use and reusable thermal protection packaging solutions for the safe transport of pharmaceuticals, clinical trials, diagnostics, tissue, vaccines, and blood supplies for the life science industry. I have been in the role now for 9 years. I have a family; we like to spend as much time as we can outdoors. We like to walk our dog, go to the beach when we can, and watch motorsport.

So, tell me at what point did you wanted to investigate engineering as a career path?

I went through mainstream schooling and I was part of the streaming regime due to the county that we lived in, so I took the 11+ and attended a local grammar school. My approach to life was looking to do something I was passionate about, which way back then was geology. That is what I got excited about and so my intention was always to have a career in this area. I knew that geology was very specific and the challenge for me at that time was that I did not really fancy the university route. I wanted to get into an apprenticeship scheme, and I knew that if I went into mainstream engineering, I could then specialise at the end of that learning process.

So, I went to the school career advisor. I sat down and said “You know physics is my thing and I'm getting decent grades”, I also enjoyed maths, but my grade at that time was not at the top level required. So, the careers advisor simply wrote ’leaving‘ across my form and suggested that I apply to the local college. I wanted to do an apprenticeship anyway and left with my GCSEs.

I started applying for apprenticeships through my local training centre and I found a maintenance engineering apprenticeship with Nestle. I went for the interview and I was so excited about what I could be involved in. I just wanted to get on and do it. I started with a year in a training centre to learn essential machine skills, electrical and electronic theory and then moved into the factory with a day release programme to attend college. The minute I got into the factory and worked on the machines; I was thrilled. Not knowing what you were walking into and then fixing a machine gave me a buzz that I really was not expecting, but I really enjoyed. I am not saying that the learning curve was not steep, or that it was easy, it really was not but as long as I wanted to go in every day, I knew I was lucky. At some point during my apprenticeship, I knew I would not pursue geology anymore and simply keep that as my hobby and being an engineer was my career.

Throughout all of this, the discussion with the career’s advisor never really left me and I personally never lost sight of wanting to do a degree. When the opportunity presented itself, I completed my degree part-time alongside working.

When I was in school, I was a bit of an organiser; I liked to have my diary, stationery, and to plan. I started running projects like that through work. After a while my role sort of morphed and once I had successfully graduated it moved more towards manufacturing engineering. This was project-based, machine specification, delivery, and validation. I always thought that if I could combine engineering with my love of projects then that would be the pinnacle for me!

I realise it sounds like my career has been more reactive than proactive, but I am really driven by undertaking things that I am passionate about, either as an industry or role within it. As I’ve been offered different opportunities throughout my career, I found that I could combine the pieces that I loved to progress further.

So, you went to a grammar school which was quite focused on the sciences. Did they give you the influence for engineering then?

No, they did not talk about it at all, to be honest. It was an all-girls school and was very focused on doctors, lawyers, that sort of thing, which I hate to say but that is what it was. Engineering was not really spoken about at all! They had one careers evening where we had lots of ex-students come in who were all doctors and lawyers but there were no engineers at all. It was a real shame.

I was influenced by my father; he is an engineer; we always talked about how things worked. I like to know how things work, I always asked a lot of questions, and played with things. When I was about ten, my parents bought me an electronics set to build my own radio. I built my own shortwave radio, and my father would sit and go through it with me. I was always very curious and asking “Yes, but why?” and  “what makes that happen?” and “what happens then?” I think I just had a similar mindset to my father, and I knew what he did, and I asked him lots of questions about his role and engineering experiences. So, my understanding of engineering mostly came from him.

It is a real shame. I was discussing with my Director how engineering really is not touched upon at school, everyone just thinks of it as a guy with a spanner, who fixes your washing machine. I do not think there is enough realisation about the different types of careers available in engineering. Whether it is electronics, mechanical engineering, maintenance, fixing, building, making; being innovative.

I agree, I started in maintenance engineering all those years ago, but continued education, opportunity and progression has led me to my current role. We design new products for the pharmaceutical market, temperature controlled packaging. The team that I manage is made up of product designers, mechanical design engineers, packaging engineers, and manufacturing engineers who together innovate, develop, and produce new products from the ground up. That combined type of team engineering is something that is even more fascinating because then anything is possible.

I’d like these discussions to happen more in schools because children have exactly the right mindset to feel that anything is possible with products and to keep them thinking this way. You can earn a good living through engineering by imagining anything is possible and then figuring out how to make it happen.

It feels like education needs a change. I went to a Science College and I was not pushed to do science. I fell into double science, because of my grades but it was never really a push to do this. I was encouraged to take Food Technology, English, and Psychology. I think if there was greater exposure to engineering, it would really make a great educational journey and provide reasons to pursue more science/technology and STEM based subjects.

I guess for me it only takes that one teacher to inspire a person. Someone who sees that you are passionate about their subject and learning and therefore worth investing into. That shared passion pushed the student to learn and the teacher to keep teaching. How many hundreds of pupils are just going unnoticed because no one is having a conversation about what drives them and what excites them?

For me when I was a kid, I knew from about the age of fourteen that I wanted to be an engineer of some kind whereas I know lots of my friends were not sure about their career choice for a long time.

Should general engineering be part of the curriculum if it gives a broader idea of what you can do and study? I also believe work experience in Year 10, is too late, you have already chosen your subjects.  Like you said earlier, why not undertake work experience and placement weeks from years seven and eight so children can direct their education and make life choices based on knowledge.

I keep coming back to the passion, but it matters to me that I'm excited about coming into work and doing what I want to do, and doing something that makes a real difference, this is my motivation. It matters to me that my team feels excited about what they are developing, so I try to get to know what makes my team tick so that I can then better match projects with people. If I can be successful at this then both the company and the individual benefit.

To get back to your question though, I think if you could engage a child in year seven or eight and find out what excites them, they could understand that it is not just about whether you are instantly clever at something, that you can do anything you want to do if you are excited about it, which makes you motivated to work harder. If we could do more to raise awareness of the breadth of engineering and STEM-based opportunities I think this would go a long way to raising the overall profile of careers in engineering-based disciplines.

I think engineering is a beneficial life skill. Take a step back, analyse, review, try something different. In the end, you will have a result either way. More engineers or more people with problem solving skills for general life. It can be used for anything, any problem that you get, take a step back, review, analyse, move forward.

And do not be afraid to make a mistake. I think this is something that all children should know and understand, the mistake is part of the experience, but it is what you do afterward that really counts.

A mutual benefit to not being afraid to make mistakes could also be useful for mental health. Understanding that you learn from mistakes should be encouraged.

Yes, mental health particularly in youngsters is a challenge. I think these things can fester if they are not dealt with there and then. Problem solving skills in their most basic form can help in my opinion. Even if we are talking about something simple like burning the toast. If you can empower the person to deal with small setbacks like this then you can encourage tolerance and confidence to make decisions for other challenges and that takes some of the fear away.

There are problems that I experience through work, or at home where I am not sure what to do, I take a step back. Often, I go back to basics; what is the problem? What options do I have? What would be the potential outcome of each approach?

So, you are in a leadership role. Has that come through your passion for projects, you clearly understand people and how to get the best from them?

During my career, I have seen people take many different approaches to progression. Some career decisions I understand and appreciate and some I don’t. For me, I have been fortunate enough to have been offered some great opportunities and I would like to think that my ability and approach has been what has driven those to my door.

I did not initially join Peli Biothermal to get these opportunities. I joined the business because I was excited about what they were doing, and I wanted to make a difference with the products. As time went on, I was approached and asked if they could push me to develop, give more to the business and it was conversations like this that gave me the confidence to develop even further. One day, I might even get the opportunity to go back to my old school and explain that I may not have taken the conventional route, but here I am, here is what was good about the journey.

Yes, I think you should return to your secondary school to demonstrate what can be achieved by alternative educational routes, which appear to be more positively represented today. I believe that it is inspirational to take the route you took, to get to where you are today, and you're still smiling about it when you discuss it.

I am aware that it is not conventional, and I am aware that I probably could have done it easier, because, you know at one stage I was finishing my dissertation while my son was just four months old, whilst moving house, which in hindsight probably was not the most sensible thing to do at the same time!

I’m not saying I did this to be a hero though – I did it because that was genuinely when the opportunities presented themselves.

I feel like the career I’ve had so far has given me a well-rounded view of the world. It means that when I am looking to hire, I am very open-minded with how I approach the people that work for me. Education only gives a person part of what they need to succeed professionally in my eyes.

I know in our email conversation it was not really discussed in terms of a stereotype engineer. When you were not asked to come and fix the production machines, would you say this was your first experience of gender bias?

The example that I mentioned during my college years was my first negative experience. Actually, during my apprenticeship, I had a very positive environment in the packing hall. The ladies that ran the lines were extremely protective and supportive of me. Nestle only took one apprentice every 4 years so it felt to me like they wanted me to succeed. Those were fun times. It was two years into my apprenticeship that I went to college and had a negative experience with the lecturer. It was such a contrast.

After completing my apprenticeship and then two years in the maintenance engineering role, I moved to another business. It was there that the particular shift I mentioned earlier did not speak to me or let me know when the line was down and needed repair. It was not until I passed my probation that things improved. When I look back, it was a difficult situation and if I had not had a good support network around me at home it could have turned out quite differently for me.

During these difficult situations, at times I thought about quitting. Not because I did not love my work, but because certain people clearly thought I should not be there. People should not get to influence your life like that, that is pretty negative.

Luckily for me, I have a great support network and a lovely family who, even if they had their own concerns with me taking the path I was taking, supported me, and did not let me see it. They just listened and reminded me why I was doing it and picked me up.

I think wherever you are and whatever job you are into you need to be supported. As well as your family and your friends, having someone who is in a very similar role to you or a similar industry, gives you reassurance and empathy. now you said that you have a fantastic support network at home. Did you have a mentor, or one now?

My home support network was always my family. I did not have a workplace mentor as such. I have people that I trusted to talk to, either that I have met through my career or that I have just bonded with and then stayed in touch with. I feel like, within Peli, we are a bit of a rare company because we have several women in leadership roles, which is nice in terms of having a professional peer group and a networking opportunity. It is great to have that sort of support network at work for sure and not something I expected to find.

Yes absolutely!

Karen thank you so much; I think we have covered a lot, in terms of your journey, a different journey to what others may take. You have had great opportunities and fantastic support behind you. Thanks again.

For other interviews covering Women in Engineering click on the links below.


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