Dr Jane Atkinson FREng is Transformation Director at Altrad Services UK.
“I was a graduate chemical engineer at a steel works. One of the operational plants had just been shut down while refurbishing two electrostatic precipitators, Unfortunately, when they commissioned them, they did not work properly. I got a phone call to go and investigate. After three months of trials, I found the root cause, resolved it and was promoted.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
My role is to merge three UK businesses into the single largest industrial services provider in the UK, with a turnover of approximately £600 million. This involves understanding the capability of the three organisations and removing any duplication. My job is to reduce the cost base of the combined business and streamline delivery while ensuring that engineering excellence is achieved every single day.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
As a young person I always wanted to understand how things worked. I loved anything that was visual and industrial. I also really liked chemistry and maths at school. After doing work experience at a chemical plant at the age of 16, I quickly realised that I didn’t want to work in an office all the time. That’s when I discovered chemical engineering. I could combine what I liked at school with practical experience and I could work outside as well as in an office and travel the world. I have done all of this in my career and I still love it.
Please describe your first job.
I was a graduate chemical engineer at a steel works. One of the operational plants had just been shut down while they spent £3 million refurbishing two electrostatic precipitators, units that take dirty particles out of waste gas before its released into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, when they commissioned them, they did not work properly. They believed it was a chemical problem, so I got a phone call to go and investigate. After three months of trials, I found the root cause, resolved it and was promoted.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
Being an engineer gives you a huge opportunity to work in different sectors, industries and countries. In other words, you can do anything. You can be a designer, a troubleshooter, an operator, a fixer and a manager.
My career has been predominately as a trouble-shooter in industry. I have had the opportunity to work in the US for five years, and I have visited many places. From the Arctic Circle to China, my work has taken me all over the globe and I have made some amazing friends in the process.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
In 2007, I won a CBI First Women Award. This was because I was the first woman in the world to manage a blast furnace and the second woman in the world to manage coke ovens. At the time when you do these jobs, you know it’s hard but you don’t think that you’re a trailblazer. When I won this award, I realised that I had achieved something. It also catapulted me into the limelight, which has allowed me to talk to thousands of school students about engineering and its value to society.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the profession?
When I started my career, on the site that I worked on there were only six women in 4,500 employees, so I was a novelty, which made everything difficult. Although today the ratio is not equal, there are more women in the workplace. It’s great that there’s more women, but it’s still not enough. We need to increase diversity at all levels in organisations, as this leads to more progressive organisations and ultimately more successful businesses.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
If you don’t want to narrow your options and you want to contribute to a better world, then become an engineer. Forget stereotypes, just be yourself and enjoy what you do. Engineers come in all shapes and sizes, do many different things and have varied jobs. We will always need engineers, so it is a career for life.
If you are curious, passionate, enjoy science and maths, want to travel and want to make a difference then become an engineer.
This year’s IWD theme is ‘Balance for Better’. How can engineers contribute to a gender-balanced world?
Engineering is about people thinking differently. If we all thought the same then how could we solve the world’s problems? Understanding that a gender balance brings challenge, perspective and empathy is critical to the success of any organisation. Celebrating the value of women to engineering is important and breaking down barriers to entry is critical. Role models are essential to tearing down stereotypes and promoting the value of women to business.
This profile was created for International Women’s Day in March 2019. All information was correct at time of publication