Speaking with Orla Douds, Anousha Khan, Martyna Cepaite, and Jessica Pidgeon, IChemE’s National Early Careers Committee (NECC) asks female engineers to share their experiences of gender balance
WHAT do you feel when you see a female chemical engineer on your team? I imagine the answer for most is: not much. And that’s a good thing. In the last decade, chemical engineering has made huge strides in increasing the gender ratio, with a rise of 11.9% over the last decade and in 2021, females made up 19.6% of “production and process engineers”, compared to 7.7% in 2010 (EngineeringUK.com, 2022). Despite progress, it’ll still be a significant time until gender equality is achieved and as such, female engineers face challenges that men don’t.
Challenges that female engineers experience can range from harassment and sexism to feelings of isolation and imposter syndrome. For example, having children and taking maternity leave can cause problems for female engineers, as new mothers typically take lengthier leave than new fathers, potentially leading to sexism during the hiring process with employers prioritising male applicants. This can cause women to delay having children or feel their career will fall behind if they take maternity leave or a longer break from work after having a child. Many female engineers also feel they have to behave a certain way as they “need to be liked” by colleagues, while also being taken seriously. Women are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome, and this feeling that they don’t belong can increase the impact of all the other issues, especially early in their career.
As we approach International Women in Engineering Day, the NECC invited early career female engineers to share their experiences of gender balance in the workplace but also of other challenges they’ve faced, of transitioning from university to industry, why they’re excited for the future, and some tips they’ve learned along the way.
The gender balance at my university… felt pretty good. Officially the ratio was around 70:30, however the representation in lectures was nearer 50:50. I built a female support network at university by meeting as many people in lectures as possible, and by getting involved in the chemical engineering and women in engineering societies. This meant I had a number of female friends on my course, which helped me feel at home. Regardless of gender, I always found my peers friendly and happy to help when I was stuck with coursework.
I am… a graduate process engineer at Jacobs. As an engineering consultancy, Jacobs is involved in a number of projects across many sectors and stages. I enjoy that the work involves problem solving and attention to detail, while also allowing me to work with colleagues in a range of disciplines. As chemical engineering is so multidisciplinary, I can also be involved in non-traditional chemical engineering work which is often interesting.
When I became an engineer… I was so, so nervous. I can’t put into words how nerve-wracking it was to move to a town where I didn’t know anyone and start a job which I didn’t really understand. Ultimately, my manager was really friendly and gave a good overview of my role. Less comforting, however, was the fact that there was only about four other women on the floor of that office – and one of them was another placement student! Luckily, I worked closely with that placement student and being able to discuss work with someone of the same age and experience was really beneficial, making it less lonely.
The greatest challenge I have faced… was during the pandemic. I was a key worker and enjoyed the socialisation I got at work (even through facemasks and 2m distances!). However, I was the only young women in the office and struggled to keep a good work-life balance mentally as there wasn’t much life going on. I felt I couldn’t really open up to people at work about this, and ultimately I burned out when one of my projects didn’t go as well as planned. Thankfully, my manager was really supportive and helped reduce my overall workload so I could recover. I reached out more to my support network and as Covid-19 restrictions ended I regained my work-life balance, which ultimately improved my mental health.
What I enjoy about being an engineer… is that the job is interesting and involves problem solving. I also like that chemical engineering doesn’t tie you to one specific industry or type of job, and this means I should always be able to find new and challenging work.
Being a female early career chemical engineer… is not often a problem. Other engineers are generally supportive no matter who you are, and the ones who are less supportive are often less supportive of everyone, which is a separate problem. It can be lonely when you’re the only women in a room, however I find that as long as I have good relationships with my team and a good network of women in my life elsewhere, it doesn’t impact my feelings towards my chosen career.
The advice I would offer early career engineers and students is… be prepared for potential feelings of isolation, but don’t let that get in your way of having an interesting and fulfilling career in engineering. There are downsides to any potential career, but I love the work I do, and I’m glad I persisted with chemical engineering. Just be sure to build strong support networks as you go! You can do this by reaching out to other women at university and in the workplace, or by really leaning into your relationships with family and friends, whatever works for you!
The gender balance at my university… was pretty good. Most of my classes were a 50:50 ratio if not leaning towards more female students.
I am… a climate tech manager focusing on sustainably-sourced alternatives to plastic. My work explores the different tech employed to reduce dependence on plastic in everyday life. I’ve always been keen to venture into the sustainability/environmental engineering side because it’s still an emerging field and I’m excited to see where it goes!
When I became an engineer… I was nervous about the transition from university to work life and finding that balance. I struggled with various aspects of it, mainly in setting boundaries at work, both on a personal and professional level. This caused a burn out quite quickly because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. In hindsight, being more assertive and transparent about workload with management would have helped, just to keep everything in perspective! It can be daunting, but I think it would ultimately help keep everyone happy.
The greatest challenge I have faced… is how few women there are in management. I think while we’re seeing more women in chemical engineering, there’s a power imbalance within organisational structures. I’ve definitely been in situations where it felt like the work was being dominated by a specific “boy’s club” and it can be an isolating experience at best or create a hostile work environment for women at worst. This disparity can lead to lower productivity and morale within female employees, limiting their opportunities for career growth and advancement. It takes a top-down approach to foster that sense of inclusion but we all need to take proactive steps to counter this disparity.
What I enjoy about being an engineer… is how flexible it is, how creative you can be with solutions. I enjoy the process of finding solutions to complex chemical engineering problems – it can be very gratifying.
Being a female early career chemical engineer… comes with some unique challenges but is generally a very rewarding career (thus far anyway!) I think most people don’t generally encounter biases or uncomfortable situations, but when I do I turn to other women for support and advice.
The advice I would offer early career engineers and students is… the obstacles you may encounter shouldn’t deter you from pursuing this field. Many sectors can be challenging for women but I think we need to take up more room within the workplace so that it can be a more welcoming space for us and other women in the future! Certain workplaces may not align with your personal style but it’s important for young women to still persevere, show up, and contribute while feeling fulfilled from their work life.
The gender balance at my university… was pretty good considering that engineering disciplines tend to have quite a low number of female students. However, generally it seems that chemical engineering has the balance a bit better than most, so it did feel almost equal, though it would definitely still be great to see more women in engineering!
I am… a process engineer at Air Products. This is actually my second year rotation on Air Product’s three-year rotational graduate scheme, which has been really rewarding! It’s given me an opportunity to try different roles and become familiar with various areas of the business.
When I became an engineer… I was a “year in industry” student at Air Products working as a plant process engineer. I was nervous as I didn’t know what to expect, but I settled in quickly thanks to the supportive team around me and realised that despite everything we learn at university, you also learn so much on the job!
The greatest challenge I have faced… is learning how to adapt to different communication styles depending on the disciplines or non-technical groups/individuals that I work with. It’s all well and good knowing your technical stuff, but not knowing how to communicate it is pointless! Working in a number of multidisciplinary teams during my degree and in work has allowed me to develop this skill and successfully deliver on projects as a result.
A good article for adapting communication styles is Communicating to Non-engineers by Jamie Cleaver (see TCE 983, p18). The methods in the article that help me communicate best are “set the context” and “use a narrative”. Employing these methods when I’m trying to explain a technical problem or solution helps other individuals see my thought process as well as have an opportunity to contribute which sets up for a better discussion.
What I enjoy about being an engineer… is being able to contribute to sustainable energy projects such as those producing green hydrogen. It makes me feel like I’m putting my degree to good use and making a positive impact, no matter how big or small.
Being a female early career chemical engineer… is empowering. There’s so much to be done to get more women into engineering which is why I’m really proud to have gotten to where I am myself, everyday proving (though it shouldn’t need to be proven) that women are just as capable as anyone else. It’s one of the reasons I do outreach and volunteering activities both through my work and the NECC.
The advice I would offer early career engineers and students is… to have confidence in themselves and ask lots of questions! As I said earlier, we learn the fundamentals at university but a lot on the job as well. Although you may feel out of your depth at first, those around you who are further in their careers understand that you’re still developing and they’ll be happy to help you, so ask your questions and don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone!
The gender balance at my university… was roughly 40:60 within the chemical engineering department. The balance was most obvious during group and lab work but that could be to do with how the university split us up into the groups. I think because of the gender split the women on the course stuck together more. For example, I was in a group chat that was just for the women on the course so I could ask questions I didn’t want to ask the whole cohort. With the women sticking together, the gender imbalance felt less noticeable.
I am… a graduate process engineer working on “first of a kind” technology for decarbonising power. Within this role I have worked with contractors to enable the planning and permitting applications to be submitted, as well as performing more traditional chemical engineering activities such as HAZOPs and a water balance.
When I became an engineer… I was excited to tackle challenges which would help improve the world and tackle climate change. The role has not disappointed – working on an energy transition project has been demanding, but I have enjoyed every minute so far and expect this to continue!
The greatest challenge I have faced... is knowing that knowledge is a continuous journey and there is still so much to learn if I wish to achieve what I’d like to achieve. My time at university has given me the foundations to understand the process; my job has given me a place to ask questions and progress further.
What I enjoy about being an engineer… is tackling issues to leave the world in a better place for the next generation. I believe I do this on two fronts: one through my work as an engineer; and one through my work going out to schools and talking about engineering. I hope this continues to inspire more women to work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Being a female early career engineer… can sometimes have its challenges, especially being the only female engineer in my office, but my co-workers have been extremely supportive in my journey.
The advice I would offer early career engineers and students is… listen to everything being said around you and note the important lessons (engineering or otherwise) as these “off the cuff” comments are often the ones that are most useful.
In this article we’ve seen first-hand accounts from female early career chemical engineers. While some have faced challenges such as feeling isolated, each seems keen to stay in the profession which will hopefully lead to further improvements over time. By taking tangible steps towards equality and continuing to learn from women’s experiences, we can create more inclusive and equitable workplaces that benefit everyone.
We hope you have found this guidance useful! If you’re an undergraduate or recent graduate and want to boost your network, join the IChemE National Early Careers Committee by following us on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/ichemenecc) and contacting our committee members.
Are you interested in becoming an IChemE volunteer? Volunteers help strengthen our community and it’s good for your CPD. To browse the latest volunteering opportunities, visit: https://www.icheme.org/about-us/people/volunteer-for-icheme/volunteering-opportunities/
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