Engineering isn't all spanners and overalls

As Women in Engineering Day approaches, Fiona Smith, a chartered chemical engineer with process engineering firm BPE, talks about her experiences in the industry. 

Fiona Smith has more than 13 years’ experience in the industry, having held senior roles with the likes of Mexichem Fluor and Grimley Smith Associates before joining BPE. A member of the IChemE, she is currently based at BPE’s Daresbury base in the north west of England. 

What do you think about the state of diversity in engineering today?  

People always seem to be surprised when I say I’m an engineer so I think the perception of the industry hasn’t changed in 20 years. In my experience though things are different, I’ve worked in departments where there was an equal split between male and female and also departments where I was the only girl but I’d say that situation is getting less common now, thankfully.  On the technical side of our company we’re a third female which I think is great.

What made you want to get into the profession? 

I’d never heard of chemical engineering before my chemistry teacher mentioned it to me as a career path when I was 16. I looked into it and realised I’d be really suited to the problem solving aspects of it and the diversity of where it could take me really appealed.

What can be done to encourage more women to consider engineering as a career option? 

I think more information about the different engineering disciplines needs to be got across to girls at an earlier age to try and shift perception away from engineering just being very manual and at times dirty. Obviously there can be an element of that, but there’s also so much more. In my career I have spent time on chemical sites in overalls with a spanner in my hand but I’ve also sat in meetings with patent attorneys discussing intellectual property law and travelled by private jet to view possible site locations, I’ve known engineers who’ve gone to Westminster to lobby MPs on legislation, so there’s so much more to the profession than people realise.  

What have your experiences been of being a woman in a male-dominated industry? 

On the whole my experiences have been good. I can’t say it’s been all plain sailing but some of the time I think the issue has been more generational than gender-based. Occasionally, when you are the only woman in a team you sometimes have to make it known that you want to be included in things, especially on the social side, as it can be assumed that as a woman you’re not interested.

If you could tell young girls one thing about engineering what would it be? 

It’s not what you think it is, or at least, it doesn’t have to be. Your career can take you wherever you want it to.

Fiona Smith is a chartered chemical engineer with process engineering firm BPE.