Jane Atkinson: Engineering’s leading lady

THERE’S no dress-down day where Jane Atkinson works. Hard hat, green overalls and safety boots are everyday attire on the SembCorp UK site at Wilton, Teesside.

THERE’S no dress-down day where Jane Atkinson works. Hard hat, green overalls and safety boots are everyday attire on the SembCorp UK site at Wilton, Teesside.

It’s the rule, even for one of the most high-profile women in UK industry and someone who is playing a key role in the sustainable energy revolution. Lipstick, though, is something else.

Wilton is sculpturally breathtaking in its industrial handsomeness with its tangle of pipes, valves, tubes, pumps and scaffolding, but there’s also something far more recognisable – and almost comforting – a huge pile of freshly-cut timber. It’s the raw material for the SembCorp biomass power station, a £60m investment in renewable energy and the UK’s first purpose-built wood burning plant producing 30 megawatts of electricity – enough to power a small town – and a reminder of the natural world in an estate of silver-grey mechanism.

SembCorp provides services for Wilton’s innovative manufacturing site and is the key supplier of power – steam and compressed air. It’s a man’s world of high-viz jackets and rigger boots which fazes ultra-feminine chemical engineer Jane Atkinson (vice-president, utilities) not one jot.

“When I started, there were only about a dozen women amongst 1,700 men on the site,” she says. “I got quite used to the male environment where you quickly learn to adapt.”

In 2004, Jane became the first woman in the world to manage a blast furnace – the Corus cast house at Redcar – and was the second woman in the world to manage a coke oven.

She reluctantly offers the information that she was named CBI First Woman in 2007, a prestigious national award which left her “gobsmacked” because the shortlist contained nationally-known dynamic entrepreneurs and self-starters. But more immediately important is the enormous task of enticing young people – male and female – into engineering. In 10 years’ time, we will apparently hit engineer deficit.

Jane says: “One of our guys asked a school group to name a famous engineer – you think of Brunel or even Dyson – and one lad said Kevin from Coronation Street. He’s a mechanic – there’s a difference between a mechanic and an engineer. It shows the education isn’t out there.”

Education is big in the Jane Atkinson handbook, she now sits on the University of Teesside’s science and engineering board and is studying for a Fellowship of the Institute of Chemical Engineers. She graduated from Loughborough University in engineering, sponsored by British Steel which was a first leg-up.

She says: “I did all my summers at plants on British Steel sites and did my sandwich year with them. When I graduated, they offered me a full-time role and I stayed with them and Corus for 14 years.

“I worked in Alabama for five years. Then I realised I missed the culture at home. You never heard much about Europe or the UK, it was all American news. British Steel were absolutely excellent for me. I don’t think you can go anywhere with a career unless you have a few supporters.”

Jane is involved in some supporting of her own – the 14-19 diplomas which are being introduced in schools over five years. One of the first launched last September is an engineering discipline for which she agreed to become “diploma employer champion” advertising to employers the qualifications, equivalent to some A-levels if the higher level is pursued.

“We’re trying to get employers to set real problems that kids can do in class,” she says. “One thing I’m a bit anxious about is that they have to do a work placement in a proper environment. But my worry is when those kids get ready for work experience, will we have enough engineering employers to help? That’s where my role is, to get support from employers because there’d be nothing worse than having 15- to 16-year-olds who can’t get a work placement.

“So, how do you get them to choose a career in engineering? Make it sexy, I suppose. They’re going to be doing real maths, engineering maths. We’re trying to make it more exciting and more relevant to the real world.”

The engineering real world remains male-dominated, but there are more pressing matters that concern industry leaders such as Jane. “What really upsets me is people talking manufacturing into decline,” she says. “We’ve convinced ourselves that it is on the way down and that way it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy; but actually it isn’t in decline, in some sections it’s growing and there are certain sectors growing really fast. Look at the green energy agenda, it’s got to grow if we’re to meet our European targets. You can’t just rely on windmills, it’s got to be a mix; nuclear, wind, the lot – and for that we need engineers. The sustainability and environment sectors will need to grow, electric cars will need engineers to help design them.

“For me it’s vitally important that we get that message out to the public, to parents, and to teachers to let them know engineering is a really exciting career.

“There are going to be 8,000 jobs in this area over the next five years in process engineering – that’s important for people to know. But there’s no way that the recession won’t hit some of the manufacturing businesses – on this site actually – and the fittest will survive. However, I’m not as doomy and gloomy for this area as some.”

One of SembCorp’s Wilton neighbours, chemicals giant Dow, has announced it would shut its ethylene oxide (EO) and glycol production facility by January, casting uncertainty over the 55 jobs it sustains. The news led to nearby Croda International, which relies on Dow’s EO as a core raw material for the majority of its products, to concede that it will also close, affecting 125 jobs.

“It would be nice to have more women to bring a different skills set to the organisation,” says Jane. “Women are more risk-averse, so in times like these you want them in the workforce. Women aren’t as macho so if, God forbid, something happened on the plant, women generally would take more of a step back and not become as emotional.

“But most of them don’t stick with it. I also think the feminine image is important, I think it’s very easy to dress down, to try and adapt, to be like a man. I Will Wear My Lipstick No Matter What. But there are times when you have to conform – there are times when I have to wear overalls with a big belt and I always have to have thick socks because they never have steel-toed boots in my size.

“I think you should be proud to be a woman in a man’s world and dress smartly, keep the side up. Many a time I’ve been in my overalls and they’ve thought I was a bloke until I turned round. It’s stereotyping. I’m one of them, just slightly different. You’ve got to laugh or cry and if I cry I’ll need my make-up bag.”

It’s an uphill struggle, but the Jane Atkinson blueprint is clearly defined. “If I can persuade one child a year to become an engineer, I think I must be doing OK,” she says. “It’s my mission.”

Jane Atkinson on influence

What, in your opinion, is influence?

Influence is the effect or perceived power of one person over another. Individuals at all levels within an organisation can have influence, it is not directly associated with hierarchy.

Is influence the same as power?

Although influence and power are not the same thing, they are related. In most cases, influence is a subset of power.

Who or what have you been most influenced by?

Throughout my career there have been specific individuals that have influenced me, most of which have become mentors in one form or another.

Who or what has most benefited from your influence?

I would hope that people who have worked for me in the past have been influenced by me. All of the jobs I have had, I have had to make significant changes, most of which have been successful. Without the buy-in from my teams this would not have happened. I hope my role and the work I do, especially with young people and engineers, help influence their career choices and raise aspirations.

To be influential you must ...

Gain respect from the people around you, understand the effect you can have on them and learn to listen.

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