Joan Cordiner FREng is the Technical and Change Manager at Syngenta.
“We all have different strengths and weaknesses; however, studies show that businesses with women have better results. Clearly the data tells us that women in organisations make a significant difference.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I manage the technology department of a chemical site in Houston, Texas, that produces a novel fungicide to prevent the development of resistance in fungi. My team work on an old chemical plant that handles high hazard chemicals using complex technology. Every day, we make improvements and solve problems to maintain production while improving safety and reducing environmental impact. Our products keep plants healthy and improve crop yields.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
My chemistry teacher gave me a computer game that was based on building a nuclear power plant. I was fascinated by the complexity involved in balancing access to raw materials and utilities with safety, environmental and economic issues. As a child, I also saw the impact of a major refinery explosion on my community, so I felt strongly that I could make a positive difference by being an engineer.
Please describe your first job.
I was sponsored during university by a large chemical company who gave me work experience during the summer. This prepared me for my first graduate role with the company, which was starting up a new unit in a recently acquired site in Mississippi. I significantly improved safety and operations by introducing best practice that I had learned during my placements. I enjoyed training the operators and solving engineering problems to successfully make the product.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
Every day there is a new and important problem to solve that makes a real difference. This has taken me all over the world, working with teams on different processes and problems. It’s not just technical challenges; as an engineering manager, I take engineers straight from college and develop future leaders. I have found that the highest fulfilment is in mentoring and leading them as they develop and advance into diverse careers.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
I developed ways of modelling and predicting complex systems using mathematical and engineering computing techniques. These models provided visualisations to improve the understanding of complex systems and provide novel solutions. We used these in many applications; for example, to manufacture new non-ozone-depleting refrigerants that won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s prestigious MacRobert Award in 1993.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the profession?
There were no women’s toilets or showers on the first plant that I worked at. The safety shoes, hard hats and protective clothing didn’t fit and had to be specially made. People weren’t used to working with women engineers and it was difficult for many. There were few female senior engineering role models. However, the fantastic thing was that many of the men thought about how they would want their daughters treated and helped and trained me, which gave me time to gain the others’ respect. It’s very different today, women engineers in teams is the norm: we have many in senior leadership positions and we have our own toilets!
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
Engineering is a great career that requires many skill sets. This allows you to develop and grow your career in many directions; for example, in technical expertise or in leadership of people, projects or supply chains. Most of all, it’s an incredibly rewarding career if you love solving problems and making a difference. We need women engineers with unique skills and perspective to be part of the solution. The world has many challenges and we need our best people to tackle them.
This year’s IWD theme is ‘Balance for Better’. How can engineers contribute to a gender-balanced world?
We all have different strengths and weaknesses; however, studies show that businesses with women have better results, and the data tells us that women in organisations make a significant difference. The world is changing and it’s recognising the shortcomings of the past and the massive achievements of women (for example, in the 2017 film Hidden Figures). There has never been a better time for us to encourage girls to consider a career in engineering.
This profile was created for International Women’s Day in March 2019. All information was correct at time of publication