Women in Engineering - A tale of two careers

Materials World magazine
27 Nov 2012

December Materials World features a 15-page special on Women in Engineering. Meet two of the Institute’s female members and find out more about their careers. 

Louise Ramsden-Hare, Product Metallurgist at Timet, UK   

What made you choose to study materials science and engineering?   
It’s something I fell into while trying to work out what to do after I didn’t get on the course I wasn’t that sure I wanted to do anyway. I decided to try materials engineering without knowing a whole lot about the course, but as I’m still involved in materials science and engineering today, I’d say the gamble paid off.   

What does your current role involve?   
I have a varied role but am generally responsible for the quality assurance for one of the product lines. I’m also a technical liaison for some customers for both approval work and for any issues. I’m involved in process improvement work and capability testing of new products. I review and update some internal procedures and customer documentation and I am an internal auditor and first aider.   

How has the industry changed over the course of your career?  
The industry that I work in changes fairly slowly over time. It’s not possible to change too quickly, partly due to investment costs. However there is also a lot of caution so as not to impact products. Any change may not be a popular option if the customer is already happy with their product and also has the danger of impacting our customers’ customers, for example.   

What do you think are the challenges facing the industry in the next few years?  
Trying to retain a competitive edge seems to be everyone’s biggest challenge, especially with such powerfully growing economies out there, for example China, which still has very low labour costs. While some companies don’t seem to meet a lot of the quality requirements at the moment, this will no doubt improve. Trying to keep up with technology can be a challenge, and it’s important to spend money on R&D. Targeting projects that will have the greatest impact is a major challenge.   

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement to date?  
I was quite pleased to receive Chartered Engineer status in 2011.   

Is there anything you would still like to achieve? What do you see yourself doing next?  
That’s always a difficult question, as I achieved a lot of my childhood dreams in my early twenties. I’m bad at planning too far ahead in life, but tend to keep an eye open for opportunities as I go.   

What makes your job worthwhile? Why do you get up for work each day?  
It is a good feeling to have a job where you have to use your brains on a regular basis and that also encourages some personal development – albeit in the name of developing skills to improve your job delivery. I don’t feel like I’ve learnt everything there is to know yet so I am still challenged in my role. Also I’ve got a family to support and this seems to be a fairly decent way to go about it. 


Anne Oxley, Technical Director  

What made you choose to study materials science?   
I enjoyed sciences at school, had an inspirational chemistry teacher who suggested I study metallurgy at Imperial College and this seemed like a good option. By the time I started the course, it was renamed materials science and engineering.   

Were there many other women on your course at university?  
In comparison to other mainstream engineering courses at Imperial College there was a higher percentage of women on the materials course – I believe it was about 25%.   
What do you think prevents more women from choosing to study materials science?   
One of the main reasons must simply be a lack of knowledge in the subject and what is encompasses within science departments in schools. Without someone to enthuse about a field like metallurgy or materials science it is almost impossible for a young woman, or a young man for that matter, to even begin to imagine the possibilities of a career in the subject.   

Can you tell me a bit about your first job, and your career progression from there?  
I began work briefly as a researcher at Johnson Matthey but moved to the Netherlands in 1990, where I worked for large design, engineering and construction houses in the oil and gas sector for the next 12 years. I began as a materials engineer, then lead engineer on large projects and project engineer on major projects before leaving to join the junior miner European Nickel PLC in 2003 as a project engineer/manager and metallurgist on the Çaldağ Project in Turkey.  

It was great to be back in metallurgy and mining on the Turkish project and it was here that I developed a love for hydrometallurgy and in particular the new field of nickel laterite heap leaching. I was with European Nickel (EN) for seven years and basically grew with them, becoming the Group Technology Manager reasonable for oversight of all the metallurgical aspects of the three main projects and business development activities at all stages around the world.  

Towards the end of 2010, my husband (also with EN) and I left to co-found our own company which is a nickel laterite heap leach project developer.   

What does your current role involve?   
Alyssum Ventures Ltd (AVL) is relatively new company still in the early stages of growth and portfolio development and as the co-founder my role pretty much encompasses everything connected with the technical side and more. This ranges from being out on the ground looking for initial heap leach locations for a project and then all the metallurgical that follows from that to even doing some of the accounts.   

What is it like running your own co-founded company in the mining sector?   
I’m passionate about my subject and love the challenges that come with managing our own business. Every day brings new challenges and with them learning experiences. Running your own company requires quick decision-making and great flexibility in all aspects of the business which is great fun. It is of course also very hard work and there are inherent risks to running any business but with risk comes reward if and when you’re successful.   

Do you meet many other women in similar positions?  
There are now several women who have high level jobs in the mining sector, particularly with the Majors. They are still in the minority but I do know women who lead large groups in technical positions for companies such as Vale and BHPBilliton and there has of course been a female CEO of a South African Major for the last five years, although she is about to step down. There are also significant numbers of women who work in the mining finance sector and I know of at least two who have founded their own mining equity houses. Further a woman who worked for me at ENK has recently co-founded an engineering based metallurgical company in Asia.   

What does your role at the Natural History Museum entail?  
Both with EN and now with AVL we believe in fundamental research and it is at the Natural History Musem that we undertake this. As part of this process, I was asked to become a scientific associate of the Museum in 2009. In this role I remain deeply involved in the research we do there and co-author papers with the excellent technical staff in the earth sciences department.   

Do you see more, or fewer females working in your field than you when you first started working?   
I think this really depends upon the country, I can’t really speak for the UK as I haven’t worked there since I first graduated but in first world countries where I have been involved in recent years (Australia, the Netherlands, USA) there seems to be little change over the last 20 years, which is rather sad. However, in developing countries I believe there are many more women involved in mining now than even 10 years ago. In Turkey with EN we had several women work within the group, a senior metallurgist, a graduate entry geologist, several chemists, environmental engineers to name but a few. The senior metallurgist we hired was probably one of best employees in the whole company – she worked extremely well with the local unskilled workforce to train them on the pilot plant we built and while they were all male they had a great respect for her. She has since worked as a Plant Superintendent in Australia and Tasmania before returning to Turkey again to run a gold metallurgical operation. All the women we employed are also still in the industry and many of them have since had or are currently involved in work outside Turkey. In the Philippines, at least on the metallurgical and chemistry side, the majority of the engineers and scientists we employed were women so here at least there seems to be no barrier to entry for women.   

Is there anything you would still like to achieve? What do you see yourself doing next?  
Our business is still very much in its infancy. I would love to see it become successful in the way we hope.   

Just 8.7% of UK engineers are female – the lowest percentage in the EU. What are the barriers, perceived or real, for women entering engineering?  
It is very difficult for me to comment on the UK engineering industry as while I visit London often, mostly with project financing in mind, I am not really involved in engineering in the UK. I do have friends and colleagues who work in science and engineering in the UK, in fact our female Turkish geologist is now working for a UK company, which is excellent.  

I believe that there are considerable numbers of women who do engineering degrees that still do not enter the workforce this certainly needs to be addressed but the key factor has to be more young women studying engineering in the first place.   

A real enjoyment of a subject is a significant factor in making a choice of what to continue to study. As such the UK education system needs to enrich the teaching of chemistry and physics in order to at least try to engender more of a passion for the subjects in young women. Enthusiastic female role models would also help appreciably as many girls will just not know any women who work in the field. This along with gender stereotyping which is still prevalent both in teaching and any careers advice, when a girl is good at sciences she often pushed towards medicine or teaching in some form, could have a dramatic effect on the numbers of women entering engineering.  

There needs to be radical change in the system perhaps better training of the trainers of young people in what can be achieved by all sexes including improved awareness of the wide range of engineering careers available. One final comment in the UK in particular engineering is not always acknowledged as true profession comparable to law, or medicine this is unique to the UK in my experience and should be addressed.   

Are there any downsides to engineering that may be putting women off?   
In the mining sector there is a lot of travel, this is actually one of the reasons I choose the sector as I enjoy travelling and working in different locations and cultures, it is however not for everyone.  

My husband and I work in the same industry this makes our work/life balance easier, although we probably never really stop working. It can however be more difficult for women whose partners work in different sectors to get this balance right, but this is no different to any other highly skilled professional occupation. Some locations, especially remote mine sites, are not very appealing to either sex, but these are often now fly-in fly-out giving a slightly better balance. There are of course substantial rewards for locations such as these and a short stint early in a career at such a location can often lead to promotion in a different perhaps more pleasant location within a company.  

There are also many engineering jobs, particularly in design and construction companies, that are based mostly in one location, often in a city, with limited travel to the actual operational sites.    

Read about six more female members and find discussions on the issues facing recruitment in the materials science and engineering sector in the latest issue of Materials World