Q&A – Kirsten Bodley

Materials World magazine
1 Nov 2017

Kathryn Allen speaks to Kirsten Bodley, Chief Executive Officer of the Women’s Engineering Society, about her career to date and good management practice. 

Tell me about your background. 

I am originally a chemistry and management graduate from King's College London, UK, and I spent the first nine years after graduating working in the chemical industry for Courtaulds. I was a development chemist, which meant I spent some time in the labs developing products and supervising scale-ups in the plant, and working with different clients to run trials on their lines. I worked in the food and beverage side of the canning industry. 

After that, I decided that I wanted to use more of my business skills, so I did an MBA at Imperial College London, UK. I then joined KPMG Consulting, UK, as a management consultant working specifically in the chemical and pharmaceutical area, in R&D. 

I thoroughly enjoyed that but decided that I wanted to try teaching – something I'd always wanted to do. I did a PGCE and then taught Year Six for a year and really enjoyed it, but decided to take the opportunity of joining STEMNET a year later to reach a much wider audience of young people. 

I joined STEMNET as the Regional Director in 2005 and became the Director of Networks, where I managed all the regional directors in 2008, before becoming Chief Executive in 2010. 

STEMNET was an amazingly inspiring organisation running really big programmes, with proven impact in schools. The STEM ambassadors programme saw more than 30,000 volunteers from business and industry go into schools to help young people understand more about the world of work. It was a wonderful place to be. I left when the programmes were taken over by STEM Learning, and took on the role at the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) as Interim Chief Executive in October 2016 and I was then appointed its Chief Executive Officer as of 1 June 2017. 

Why did you choose to study chemistry and management? 

Two reasons – I had absolutely inspiring teachers at school and, as a result, I really enjoyed chemistry as a subject area. I chose the management side because, rather cheekily, it enabled me to get out of some of the theoretical chemistry. But actually, it was the most brilliant thing to have done because I discovered how much I enjoyed economics. 

What has been your biggest career achievement so far? 

I think it would be the success of the STEM ambassadors programme at STEMNET. Growing and expanding the programme to reach over 95% of secondary schools in the UK with proven impact was a career highlight. 

Can you tell me about WES?

WES is a membership organisation set up in 1919. It is a network of female engineers, scientists and technologists offering inspiration and support. We’re a very small charity, but punching well above our weight in terms of the types of partnerships we have. We provide a lot of support for our network in terms of regional clusters and we have student groups at universities. We also have a growing number of corporate members, including the likes of BAE and not-for-profit ones like the Royal Academy of Engineering, as well as recruiters, such as Matchtech, part of Gattaca, which is a recruitment agency working specifically in STEM fields.  

We also have education partnerships, such as universities, where we support female engineering students and academics and help them set up student groups. There's a recognised issue that women leave an engineering career path at all stages, and university is a frequent drop off time in terms of those going into engineering careers and those going into, for example, finance. 

The need for WES is growing, mainly because of the skills gap. There just aren't enough young engineers, either from apprenticeships or university, coming through. There is also a massive group of women who don't return to work after a career break because of a lack of confidence or other barriers.

What can we expect from WES in the future? 

We organise programmes that run alongside membership, for example, International Women in Engineering Day is on 23 June every year. We also run a mentoring programme called MentorSET, which sees experienced engineers, male or female, mentoring early-stage women engineers. 

WES hopes to work with partner organisations, including professional engineering institutions, and corporate partners to disrupt their thinking and to bring diversity
and inclusion up the agenda so that it becomes part of their daily business – not an add-on to their strategy. 

For the WES centenary in 2019, we are encouraging organisations to work with us – one of the projects we're running is 100–for–100, where we'd like to make 100 awards in recognition of progress in terms of companies diversity and inclusion, specifically in the gender area. We'd like organisations to come forward and pledge some actions that they can take to improve their policies. 

What advice would you give to young people starting out in engineering? 

I would say, stick with it. Use the support networks and look beyond the cultural barriers that might be perceived in employers that you come across. More and more employers are focused on removing those barriers to women, by putting diversity initiatives in place. Things are changing – it might be slower than most of us want but it is happening and we're sensing that from the work we do with our corporate partners. 

What do you think is crucial to successful management and employer/employee relationships? 

I think it’s really important that staff take responsibility for their own development. The responsibility of their employers is to support that development. I believe that having regular touch-points with staff is crucial, as is including staff in strategy discussions and encouraging them to input their thoughts and experiences. 

Opportunities for development are numerous and they're not limited to paid-for courses or training – it could be work shadowing or volunteering. I certainly encourage my staff to keep an eye open for development opportunities, and if I come across something I will make them aware of it. It's a holistic approach where you include staff in meaningful discussions about the organisation and where it’s going, as well as giving them the opportunity to think about their own development. 

Do you have any tips for employers or employees concerning appraisals? 

A robust performance review process is necessary to support development. There shouldn't be any surprises, performance review is not something that happens once a year and just involves signing a piece of paper. Performance should be discussed at regular intervals. Discussions on development, strengths and how these can be utilised in the best way by the employer are vital. 

Would you say technical or personal skills are more important to successful management? 

I wouldn't put one above the other. I would say that both are equally important.