Q&A – Dr Lilian Hodgson

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2018

Kathryn Allen talks to Dr Lilian Hodgson FIMMM about choosing a career path and maintaining a work–life balance. 

Tell me about your education. 

During my schooling in North London I knew that I wanted to study chemistry at university. I chose the University of East Anglia (UEA), UK, as their School of Chemical Sciences had a good reputation – outside Oxford, Cambridge, and London – and because UEA was a modern, red brick university. Norwich was far enough from, but easily accessible to London for me to see my family and my fiancé Bob regularly. 

I came to Norwich in September 1972 while UEA was still developing. The university was progressive, Norwich was not in those days. After I got married in September 1973, we planned to remain there only while I completed my BSc. 

Chemistry was great, but women were very much in the minority, with only approximately 15% of the students being female. There was no female faculty, and the only other women in the department were secretarial and cleaning staff. I was very much in a man’s world. 

When did you begin to consider career paths? 

I was offered a research post in chemistry at UEA, and this created a dilemma for me – should I stay and study, or go out into the real world to earn money. Bob recommended that I stay and study, saying I would always wonder what if, if I didn’t. These were wise words as post-graduate life was fabulous, academically and socially. It was here that I earned my MSc and PhD. 

It was during my PhD, when thoughts about getting a job were uppermost. I attended a careers event on campus and was interviewed by industrial chemical companies. Prospects for a good job as a research chemist were on the horizon. Unexpectedly, a human resources officer approached me from United Glass, Norwich Plant – now called UCP Zeller Plastik and part of the international packaging company RPC Group – who were seeking a fully qualified chemist. I became their first and only chemist to date, starting in September 1978. 

What is your experience of industry? 

When I arrived on site, many were taken aback to see a young, Asian, married, qualified female who would look after materials – I was the first female employed in a technical role within the business. The only other woman on the team was our secretary. 

My initial responsibilities were to manage and monitor raw materials used for conversion into bottles and closures, and ancillary operations, including surveillance and monitoring safety of all chemicals on site. I combined work with my post-graduate studies, until I was awarded my PhD in 1981. It was a milestone achievement for me. Having the title of doctor was great fun, as it confused and embarrassed many chauvinistic men within our industry. Even when I answered the phone, they assumed that I was Dr Hodgson’s secretary – imagine their surprise when they encountered me face-to-face. Whenever I went on a business trip with a male colleague, they assumed that I was the junior. Some men had yet to be liberated from their prejudices.

How did you balance work and family life? 

When I became pregnant, I continued working until two weeks before my son was born in 1985. Maternity leave was succinct in those days, as new mothers did not have the benefit of long maternity leave with full pay as some do today. I returned to full-time employment five months later.

What did your role involve? 

In the early years the technologies on site included injection and compression moulded closures, blow moulded bottles, injection-blow moulded bottles, and ancillary assembly and decoration of containers and caps. After business rationalisation during the 1990s, combined with advances in polymers and technology, we focussed on closures manufacture. We produced standard screw-on and snap-on closures, as well as speciality variants for standard, child resistant, and tamper evident performance. The Norwich business continued to specialise in caps and closures using our on-site R&D facility.

During this time, our culture changed from quality control to total quality management involving all personnel in the responsibility and accountability of their tasks for every step in the process. It was my responsibility to set up and organise a quality system for checking and testing moulding and secondary processes at the machine by setters and operators, with confirmatory and specialist support by quality assurance inspectors. 

My role has been pioneering and interactive. I have introduced and maintained systems encompassing quality, environment, occupational health and safety, hygiene and security, and medical devices for certification in a holistic approach to the business. 

This was long before integrated management was a concept for national and international certification, and was achieved by my steering – with training and coaching of colleagues –without the use of external consultative resources.

Networking with local and national enterprises has formed a large part of my contribution to ensure that UCP has remained prominent locally and stays ahead in competitive markets. This ranged from work in my local community and hospital, to being part of the steering group to establish and consolidate a place for Women in Management (WiM) in Norfolk and Suffolk. I was selected as a founding member of the steering group of four women who represented the health service, education, the media, and industry in Norfolk. 

Tell me about Women in Management in Norfolk and Suffolk?  

The aim of WiM (now a group within the Chartered Management Institute) is to support, encourage, and develop women at all levels in all workplaces to achieve their full management potential. WiM was a national, charity-based organisation with branches all over the country and represented women of all ages, in all walks of life, and at all stages in their careers. We were impressed with what WiM could offer and decided to set up a branch for like-minded women in this area who wanted to network.

In 1997, we organised an event to inaugurate WiM in Norfolk and Suffolk to recognise women’s capabilities in management. Regular meetings followed to share experiences and network with inspirational and successful women in key managerial roles across all disciplines. Subsequently, our branch formed part of a nationwide network for professional women, which has grown and continues to presently. When we started in 1997, it was pioneering and helped to raise awareness, challenge stereotypes, and encourage change.    

How has your career progressed? 

Over the years in the Norwich plant, my job continued to be consultative, guiding the long-term development of our company processes, systems, and customer support for product quality. These responsibilities have not been diluted while the business has increased its turnover and diversity in products and markets over the years.  

I have grown with business change, choosing to remain here as it suited my work-life balance with my family. Over the years, I have represented the business to customers and suppliers. I have enjoyed meeting people across different disciplines, in far-flung countries. I was never afraid to travel, often on my own, to places long before the invention of mobile phones and the internet. It has enriched my interests and experiences at work and in my private life, as I come from a line of professional, independently-minded women supported by strong and intellectual spouses. 

I have decided to retire at the peak of my career while I remain physically and mentally fit. 

What have you been up to since retiring? 

I have been actively involved in the Environmental Arts Committee in the NHS Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital since 2007, when it was known as the Hospital Arts Project. I was nominated as Vice-Chair in 2009, a post that I still hold. Our committee is made up of a team of active volunteers who give their time and support to assist with the provision of arts in the hospital environment. 

I have also become a volunteer mentor to students at UEA. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, in which students, graduates, and people like me can share skills and experience. I also participate in a weekly creative writing workshop, and I am currently writing my autobiography.  

What advice do you have about choosing or changing career paths?

Choose a career path that you are passionate about, and do not be influenced exclusively by peers, status, and monetary gain. You must enjoy what you do, and be able to do it to the best of your ability and integrity. Remember that there is a life outside work. Work–life balance is important and one must not be at the expense of the other.

Also, remember that when you retire – in the dim and distant future perhaps – that there will always be someone to take over. Admittedly they may not do the job as well as you did – perceived or actual – or may do it differently. Nevertheless, work will go on. Consider when your working career has come to an end – will you have regrets? Would you do anything different in hindsight? These are harsh but necessary questions.